UNITY, Maine — Matthew Secich, an Amish maker of dried meats, smoked cheeses and other delicacies at his small, old-fashioned store, Charcuterie, said this week that high food safety regulatory hurdles and heavy paperwork requirements are causing him to contemplate shutting down the popular business.
“We’re thinking about closing because it’s just too much,” he said Monday afternoon. “We want to stay open. But we’re so overwhelmed at the vast amount of paperwork … it’s so immense, I can’t keep up with it.”
Secich, a former big-city sous chef at the renowned Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago, said that he is well-versed in food safety and good industry practices. However, he feels that the highly detailed and specific standards delineated in the 158-page-long Maine Food Code are so strict they put an unfair burden on small businesses, such as his, and might be better — or only — suited to large corporate producers.
“I don’t have time to be checking the temperature every two hours and logging it,” he said. “It makes me very tired. It’s too much. The last thing I’m ever going to do is serve somebody something I wouldn’t stand beside. The last thing I’d do is jeopardize anybody in any shape or form.”
But Maine state food safety inspectors have cast a dubious eye on some of his choices, such as his decision to keep the meats at the required 41-degree Fahrenheit temperature in a custom-built ice house next to the shop instead of with the help of refrigeration technology.
However, so far, state officials say they are trying to work with Secich, not take action against him.
Steve Giguere, the program manager of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations, said Tuesday that his agency is trying to help Secich find solutions to the problems inspectors believe they have found. There have been no complaints from customers and the state believes that consumers are safe — “so far.”
“We have to be a little creative because of the limitations he’s put on himself because of his Amish faith,” Giguere said. “The biggest stumbling block right now is that we’re trying to verify that the refrigeration he wants to use will be adequate. The ice house is highly unusual. We don’t have any others in the state. We reached out to some other states with Amish populations, and none of those other states would even consider allowing an ice house. I’m not going to say it’s not acceptable until I can see what temperature it can maintain.”
But Secich, who is adamant that he doesn’t want to fight about an ice house, said that the refrigeration system isn’t the only sticking point he has with the state of Maine. When he received his retail butcher and meat shop license from the state when he opened his business on Sept. 4, 2015, he did not know he would later have to create a highly detailed food safety plan, called a hazard analysis and critical control points plan, or HAACP plan for short.
That’s because the state updated the food code in the last year, Giguere said. It now includes a requirement for retailers — whether new or previously established — to have a HAACP plan under certain conditions.
“One condition being processing meats,” he said. “That’s why we’re working with him now to get him inspected. We haven’t told him to stop processing at all. If that was what we were going to do, we would have done that already.”
According to Giguere, Charcuterie came to the state’s attention in part because of a flurry of media attention in January. People all over the country heard about the store and were captivated by the idea of the chef, who became Amish last year, hand-grinding sausages in a rural part of Maine. Business picked up hugely, Secich said, and sales increased from $160 to $1,500 in just one day. The initial surge of new customers has abated, he said, but on Saturdays there is still a line out the door.
“We find people unlicensed through news articles on a fairly regular basis,” Giguere said. “I think we’ll get this resolved and figure out a way for him to stay in business. If he chooses to stop, that’s his choice, but it’s not going to be because we tell him to stop. He has options. We haven’t even explored all the options yet. Right now we’re trying to see if he can do things the way he wants to do them.”
One expert, Dr. Michele Pfannenstiel of southern Maine-based Dirigo Food Safety, said that she believes that one of the problems holding back local agriculture in Maine and throughout the country is the way that states implement and administer the food safety plans. She spoke to the BDN from southwestern France, where she is running a weeklong course in butchery and HAACP, and said that the two countries look at food safety regulation very differently. In France and western Europe, she said, governments regulate risks and not hazards. In America, the opposite is true.
For example, a small professional butcher in France who sells locally to a small clientele isn’t required to have a HAACP plan, only good refrigeration and a good cleaning system, Pfannenstiel said.
“That’s because by definition they are a less risky producer, with a limited distribution of their products,” she said.
Meanwhile, a French company with a wider distribution would have to have a specific food safety plan because they are a riskier producer.
However, in America, the government regulates hazards rather than risks, which Pfannenstiel believes is not, perhaps, the best strategy.
“Whether you produce a pound of bacon or 100,000 pounds of bacon, the hazard of botulism is exactly the same. But the risk that somebody’s going to get sick from the pound of bacon is an awful lot lower, because they sell to fewer people,” she said. “I think it can be incredibly problematic. I think it doesn’t create the culture of food safety that we need. I think there’s things we can be doing better with our small producers.”
Changing food safety policy is “very, very hard,” she said, and getting a variance for a business such as Charcuterie would require legislative changes she said are politically impossible right now.
“To change that, we would need to move from hazard-based inspection to risk-based inspection,” Pfannenstiel said. “And that is a long way off.”
Still, some efforts are being made for national food safety policy to catch up with the explosion of and desire for locally produced offerings, such as legislation introduced this week by U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act, or PRIME Act, is intended to give states the freedom to permit intrastate distribution of custom-slaughtered meat to consumers, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores.
If Charcuterie cannot thrive, and if Matthew Secich and his wife, Crystal Secich, make the hard decision to close down, that would be a real shame, said their customer and friend Tim Loeb of Thorndike. He said that many other businesses in the area have benefited from the people who drive to Unity from all over to visit Charcuterie.
“Finally we have something that is truly world-class and the state is trying to shut them down. It makes no sense,” he said mournfully. “It’s lose-lose-lose. The community businesses are going to lose. The people are going to lose. And Matthew’s going to lose.”