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A Chicagoan wandering the Dane County Farmers' Market, the vast farmers' market that wraps around all four sides of the state capitol in Madison on Wednesdays and Saturdays, could be forgiven for thinking that if there's an artisanal food paradise, its name is Wisconsin. The creativity of everything from cheese makers to beekeepers to buffalo-jerky curers seems boundless. But two stories in the past few months of creative, artisanal businesses being forced out of business politically suggest trouble in foodie paradise. This isn't so much about the recent election in Wisconsin, which drew headlines and political fault lines with fairly clearcut sides. It's more about the way the power of government in general can be used, in election season and out, to achieve ends that benefit one side, or the bureaucrats themselves—and the cost is a business environment that prevents innovation and stifles socially beneficial efforts to improve our food system.
Exhibit A: Bolzano Artisan Meats, formerly in Milwaukee.
Scott Buer and his wife Christin started Bolzano Artisan Meats in 2009 with the intent of reintroducing the lost arts of dry-cured salumi to Wisconsin. You can buy salamis and summer sausages which are made all over Wisconsin, but along with having preservative chemicals, that kind of charcuterie is cooked for a certain amount of time. Buer's intent was to be the state's first manufacturer of charcuterie cured solely by salt and dehydration, in the traditional European way. And they would do it using artisanal Wisconsin meats—Berkshire pork, Red Wattle. and other heritage breeds, which they bought whole and butchered into whole cured pieces such as pancetta and prosciutto, and other parts for grinding into sausage in house.
Doing a form of curing that hadn't been done commercially in Wisconsin required helping the inspectors to understand what safe dry curing was so they could inspect for it. But even before that, it required a choice of who Buer wanted to be inspected by—the state or the feds. "We started doing our inspection with the state of Wisconsin, believing that it would be more simple or easy and they might be a little more helpful in guiding us through regulations," Buer says. "We had a very positive relationship with the state of Wisconsin for nearly all of our time. We knew that we were new to the business, we were making a really difficult food. The artistic side, or tradition, doesn't really matter [to them]—what matters is the hard science."
The Buers set up in an old dairy in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood which had been repurposed as a food business incubator, and their plant was considered a model operation—"Our inspectors said the other inspectors were jealous of the ones who got to come to our plant, because it was so advanced. We had an inspector come in on her own time, unpaid, just to educate herself more about what we were doing and what kind of cool things could be going on at the state level."
He sighs. "So we went from that to being the worst criminals ever in the view of the Department of Agriculture, within a few months."
Five years into its lifespan, Bolzano Artisan Meats was respected (and distributed) throughout Wisconsin. The nature of its state inspection process, however, allowed for direct sales to customers in other states—but not wholesale to distributors across state lines. And, among other things, there was a big account about to arrive in Chicago looking for high quality locally made products from the upper midwest to sell at retail—Eataly.
Buer treads carefully in trying to explain what happened next, because this is the crux of his legal dispute with the state of Wisconsin. "There is a program called the Cooperative Interstate [program], and it's the state doing inspections for the USDA," he says. It seemed as if it would be the answer, allowing Bolzano's products to have the USDA certification that would allow them to be sold across state lines at retail.
What Buer didn't realize was that it was, apparently, the 50-yard line in a turf battle between departments, and he believes that by attempting to join the program, he offended Wisconsin regulators by seeming to try to get around them. "That program, there's something really wrong with it," he says. "Ohio has about 20 plants in the program; Wisconsin stopped having any for a long time, I think they finally have two. Plants are afraid to talk about it, they've tried to get in it and they're not. It's not like I think they don't want new business [from other states]."
The result was that the state went after Bolzano for selling meat products with the Cooperative Interstate program labeling when, they claimed, Bolzano wasn't actually in the program yet. "The state said we had to recall our products with the Cooperative Interstate label," Buer explains, "We did that. And then they said that the products we were making, that never were even packaged yet, were also possibly unsafe, for reasons that didn't make any sense. So then we had to fight to get those released, too. It was a throw everything at us one type of deal. One was that we weren't really part of this program, apparently, and two was that they didn't know about our process, somehow, which they did."
"We could have hired a hundred of the top food scientists in the nation to work at our plant and monitor everything and design our food safety system, but when the rubber hits the road, it's really the regulators or the head of the regulation bureau. And they can just say, 'No, what you're doing is illegal.'"
Buer alleges that much of this was essentially punitive. "They wanted to delay us getting our final batch out, which we won, but by the time that was all done that was two months, and we couldn't survive having all that happen at the same time. If we had been fantastically wealthy, we could have withstood this. But if we had been wealthy, it would not have happened to us, because we would have had a team of lawyer and lobbyists at the door of the regulating office even before this happened."
"Every visit we were getting written up for the most bizarre, tiny things," he says. "Our plant probably worked more directly with the USDA and with the scientists of the [University of Wisconsin] extension, more than probably any other state-inspected plant has. And we were just constantly, accidentally, making the head of the inspection bureau look bad. We never meant to do that, it would have been stupid to do, but it just happened. It's like, imagine if you made a cop look bad. And that cop's out of control, and he just sits in front of your house and waits for you to pull out of the driveway."
"This is not 'inspection bad, the gummint isn't gonna tell us what to do' or something like that," Buer says. "One of the people who had been one of the top investigators of your food safety told us we had one of the best food safety plans of any plant he'd ever been to. We were one of the only plants that would give tours and talk about what meat inspection is, and why it's important and why it's safe and why it's cool having third parties verify what you do."
In the end, Buer and his wife decided to get out of making salumi for retail sale, "keeping our mission going with classes and events instead," Buer says. They have shut their plant down; their products no longer appear at Eataly or anywhere else. They held a closeout sale for customers, and then the rest of their stock was bought out by another, seemingly more stable artisanal food business, Black Earth Meats near Madison.
I ask him how high he thinks this animus toward his business goes. "I think a problem with the department of agriculture in Wisconsin is that it's so much power focused in just a few people," he says. "The people at the top, they can do anything, they really don't have roles. I mean, the USDA, they have people who do labels, and people who come check your plant. With the state, it's like there's a few people who run everything. It's like the small town sheriff, and everything is their business."
Does he think there's a general attitude against artisanal startups that comes from the influence of big producers in the state? Isn't part of their job helping make Wisconsin a state where you can create these new businesses? "I don't believe they are for small plants," he says. "I think the evidence of what they've been doing is against that. I'm not going to say it's a conspiracy, big money paying off people. But at the very least, there's really big money at stake that sets the agenda, even if places really don't know it. The focus is on what you can do for the biggest companies in the state."
But the bureaucracy is also its own political force, he believes. He says a sympathetic state senator told him that when a group of processors got together to push for a rule change through the legislature recently, they all found themselves under increased inspection scrutiny soon after.
"You can't not have food be a political act in Wisconsin," Buer says. "You're entering into this weird field of who supports what and whose money is going where, just by having a food processing company."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the Buers were pursuing federal USDA certification, but that is no longer the case.
Read part two: The end of Black Earth Meats