Earlier this week I was disheartened to learn about the imminent closure of Il Mondo Vecchio, an acclaimed Denver, Colorado-area salumeria that has been producing a wide variety of artisanal cured meats—including Italian-style dry sausages and whole muscle salumi—since 2009.
Il Mondo Vecchio's owner, Mark DeNittis—who's followed the group I lead, Keep Food Legal, for some time on Twitter—reached out to me about his company's plight after I tweeted about the pending closure of a Scottish bangery. (I don't know if that's what a Scottish sausage plant is called, but there's no doubt that's what it should be called.)
In the case of the Scottish sausage plant, Freshlink Foods, EU bureaucrats decided that the 30-year-old producer would have to comply with new EU cold-storage regulations.
One plant worker speaking to the British website Food Manufacture—presumably one of the 144 workers who will lose their jobs over the new regulation—characterized the costly new requirement as akin to mandating "a Rolls Royce engine in a Ford Escort."
Il Mondo Vecchio's problem is a similar one—regulations run amok—according to a release prepared by DeNittis and his co-owner, Gennaro DeSantis, last week.
"In August, the USDA imposed additional requirements on Il Mondo Vecchio's production methods. After two months of sharing information and collaboration back and forth between Il Mondo Vecchio and the USDA as well as various attempts to modify the production methods," the owners announced, "Il Mondo Vecchio has determined that the impact of the regulatory requirements on dry cured sausage products was detrimental to the quality of the product and therefore, Mark and Gennaro are forced to close the[ir] doors."
This conflict between modern regulations and traditional methods is something DeNittis thought for a time he could navigate.
"We adhere to Old World techniques of natural process while following New World regulations," Il Mondo Vecchio's website states.
When it comes to Old World methods, I think it would be hard to find a better example of a traditional, conscientious, sustainable, and local producer than Il Mondo Vecchio.
For example, Il Mondo Vecchio used pigs from Cure Organic Farm in nearby Boulder to make many of its products. Il Mondo Vecchio's website also boasts that it hand crafts salumi from "age old family recipes." Its products are all natural, "minimally processed, and contain no artificial ingredients." Il Mondo Vecchio even cares about its salt—obtaining "ancient sea salt from Utah (just west over the Rocky Mountains)" and using "the lowest allowable salt content of today's producers nationally."
While he could have altered his recipe—say, by adding nitrates or nitrites—in order to bring Il Mondo Vecchio's product into compliance with USDA regulations, that would have turned his product into something he wasn't comfortable selling.
"Our name literally means 'Old World," DeNittis told me by phone. And how did they cure meat back in the old world? With a discrete, short list of ingredients: "Sea salt, meat, quality spices, and time."
Paul Cure of Cure Organic Farm tells me the loss of that sense of care and artistry will resonate.
"He's so rare in regards to our area," says Cure. "When he leaves next month it'll be felt for sure. It's an enormous loss for the food community here."
While DeNittis is obviously serious about quality, Il Mondo Vecchio is just as serious about food science and safety.
His products never sickened anyone, he says. And the only time USDA regulators (who were on site at his plant every day) ever took issue with anything Il Mondo Vecchio did in the course of its three years of business, it was a one-time complaint about the use of a different thermometer than the company had been using.
Even that minor violation surprises me. Talking to DeNettis about his efforts to comply with USDA regulations, I found myself quickly overwhelmed by his vast knowledge of the science undergirding his work. In fact, DeNittis sounds less like an old-world sausage maker than he does like some of the geekier food-science faculty I came to know during my time working with them while earning an advanced food-law degree in Arkansas.
DeNittis lost me somewhere between discussing proper pH levels and the requisite average water content of the finished product. While I understood DeNittis's discussion of the basic science underlying the various pathogenic tests he's conducted (always with glowing results), details about particular methods like "Alternative 3 LM testing" proved too much for my non-scientific brain.
Suffice to say, DeNittis's point is this: He knows how to make great sausages. He knows how to do so safely. He tests to make sure. And he knows—or, rather, he thought he knew—how to do all that in a way that complies with USDA regulations.
But to the process-obsessed USDA, DeNittis's obsession with quality, tradition, local ingredients, and food safety means little, say experts.
"The standards for meat inspection are obviously set up for large scale industrial operations and protocols designed for plants that cannot and do not pay close attention to what goes into their products," says Prof. Ken Albala, a salumi-obsessed professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, who is also the author of The Lost Arts of Hearth And Home: The Happy Luddite's Guide to Domestic Self-Sufficiency. "The logic is to correct problems after the fact. The small producer, especially using traditional procedures for curing meat, simply does not have a chance—even when they take every precaution possible. The only solution is to go commando, do it yourself and stop buying mass produced salumi."
The same disconnect between the small and regulated (on the one hand) and regulators and regulations (on the other) exists throughout the food industry.
The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic report on the regulation of farmers markets that Keep Food Legal commissioned earlier this year found similar process and scalability issues inherent in some of those rules.
As I noted in a Reason column in August after the report's publication, "the report urges states to replace process-driven regulations—which require a farmer or vendor to follow particular steps—with results-driven regulations that simply require food to be safe. If a farmer can keep meat at a mandated temperature using an ice chest, there is no reason to require her to purchase an expensive refrigerator and generator to achieve the same level of food safety at a much higher cost. Results-driven regulations like these foster the ability of farmers to innovate so long as they meet established food-safety outcomes, helping them to uncover and employ cost-effective procedures that produce the same or better results."
Those were the results Il Mondo Vecchio had achieved. But the company was still left with few viable choices.
One option the USDA did make available to Il Mondo Vecchio, DeNittis tells me, was to pay $7,000 to conduct a "challenge study"—essentially a test that would prove the USDA wrong. But even that might not be enough for the agency.
"You can do the challenge study," DeNittis says the agency told him, "but we may not accept the results."
As a consumer, advocate, attorney, and supporter of food entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, I join DeNittis, Cure Farms, and Il Mondo Vecchio's customers in finding it hard to accept the results of this latest misguided USDA crackdown.