A Winterport farmer is fighting back against what he calls an “absurd” food safety rule that has condemned 100 pounds of his specialty smoked meat to a terrible fate.
Officials from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry have told Randy Canarr that they feel badly about it but still must rip open the frozen packages of bacon, ham, smoked shoulders and more, and douse them with bleach.
This is not happening because the meat from Canarr’s pastured pigs is unsafe to eat. It’s because there was a paperwork problem at the business that processed the meat, the farmer said. He understands that he cannot legally sell meat that has been wrongly labeled, but the destruction of his bacon and other products makes no sense to him.
“They’re my animals. I’ve been raising them from piglets for a year. The state is essentially coming in and taking food from me and my family,” he said. “What if I say the hell with it and just eat a package of bacon — will I get fined? I think that at a fundamental level, it’s a ridiculous rule that needs to be changed.”
Canarr, 37, of Souder Station Farm said that in order to legally sell pork to his customers at the Hampden Farmers Market and elsewhere, a state inspector needs to follow the pig through the process of being slaughtered and processed. There must be a clear paper trail, with information that includes what time the pig was killed and what time it was chilled.
In his case, something went wrong with the paper trail of the pigs he shipped out last fall to be processed.
The owner of Maple Lane Farms in Charleston, where the meat was processed, said Thursday that Canarr had done nothing wrong.
“It was more my fault than his, that’s for sure,” said the owner, who declined to share his name. “The girls that labeled it had the wrong label on it. It went out and didn’t get caught, and the state found it with the wrong code on it.”
The labeling issue happened last fall and was discovered this spring. In June, state inspectors told Canarr that they wanted to recall and destroy all the meat he had left from those pigs.
They also told him that they were going to “retain” two more pigs he had brought two months ago to the processing company for slaughter until a determination could be made on the production process of those animals, according to a signed statement that Canarr submitted on July 2 to a compliance officer with the Maine Meat and Poultry Inspection Program of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Canarr said that his beef is not with the processing company, which he said is going to make the small farmer financially whole. He estimates that the frozen meat would be worth about $1,000 at market.
“They made a mistake. These things happen,” he said.
It’s not even with the individual food safety inspectors.
“I haven’t found anybody who doesn’t agree with me,” he said. “We’re on the same page as humans.”
His problem is with the rule that is mandating the recall because he just cannot wrap his mind around destroying food that is perfectly good to eat.
“You know how many families don’t even have food?” he asked. “If the solution is to grotesquely destroy it all, well, it’s absurd, and I can’t let it go.”
Last week, Canarr wrote a letter pleading his case to Amanda Beal, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. On Thursday, Jim Britt, the department spokesman, said that the letter is being reviewed and a final decision about the meat likely will be made next week.
“The department is considering what the options are,” he said.
One option Canarr said he can’t consider is the one he has been given, which is to permanently recall the meat by dousing it with bleach. If he was a larger producer without the ability to keep track of every package of mislabeled bacon or pork shoulder, that would be one thing. But he is willing to sign an affidavit swearing that he will not sell it and will just keep it for his own use.
“That’s sustenance for my family, my friends. We could have a big old barbecue,” he said. “It would relieve the state of any ownership and everybody wins.”
If that doesn’t work, well, he might have to practice civil disobedience, bacon-style. The meat, which has been weighed by state inspectors, is in a chest freezer in the cool basement of his log cabin. Lots of his friends and customers have offered to provide it amnesty in their own freezers (and kitchens), but Canarr would prefer to do it the right way. He is working on building his own charcuterie business and does not want to burn his bridges with the state.
“I’ve had a great working relationship with the inspectors,” he said. “But I’m not giving it up. That’s ridiculous. Is there a fine? Is there jail time? Is it going to affect me into the future?”
It’s a risk he’s willing to take in order to literally save his bacon. Because principles aside, it’s just that good.
“It’s phenomenal,” Canarr said. “When you’re allowed to eat it.”