Salumi Sorrow: How Regulation Killed a Small Business

Il Mondo Vecchio is Italian for “The Old World.”For Mark DeNittis, the owner and purveyor of Il Mondo Vecchio Salumeria in Denver, Colorado, “The Old World” means making cured meats and sausages the right way – the way his Italian uncles made sausage and their uncles before them. DeNittis’ salumi is an anachronism – a product from a time before slaughterhouse factories, artificial preservatives and fast food – but DeNittis combines his old world technique with a modern understanding of the science of food and an extraordinary attention to detail. And the results taste incredible; DeNittis has been called the “high priest of salumi” and his pepperoni have been referred to as “transcendent sticks of pig gold.”

Il Mondo Vecchio’s techniques were so old, they were new – and that is why they found themselves in the cross-hairs of the Department of Agriculture. Despite working directly with the USDA for almost four years, and despite a perfect record of impeccably high sanitary standards, the USDA is forcing the only dry-cured salumeria in the state of Colorado to change its process or close up shop. And if you are making sausage the same way it has been made for hundreds of years, changing the process is not an option. So Il Mondo Vechhio will close its doors for good at the end of November.

The USDA’s intention – like most all regulation – is noble; they want to avoid foodborne pathogens, particularly salmonella, from infecting the public. The problem is the way the USDA, and regulators more generally, go about ensuring public safety.

In the eyes of the federal government, there is no difference between a single warehouse handcrafting dried meats on the outskirts of Denver and a massive factory at a train hub in Nebraska processing 6,000 cows a day.  This kind of standardized inflexibility actively disadvantages smaller facilities. The USDA, for instance, requires specific types of large and expensive refrigeration units for maintaining a certain temperature level that prevents bacteria growth.

But Il Mondo Vecchio is keeping their meat at that same temperature, at a much lower cost, with an old-school ice chest – a solution utterly impractical for a meatpacking factory and, therefore, something USDA procedures fail to account for. It is, however, a process that has been keeping food safe far longer than the Department of Agriculture has existed.

Certainly regulators should not care how you keep your pork cold as long as it’s cold correct? Unfortunately, they do – which is the second regulatory problem: there is more interest in monitoring the process than assuring good results.

At Il Mondo Vecchio, the USDA is concerned that they do not have sufficient proof that no salmonella exists at each step in the sausage making process. Never mind that every batch of salumi is tested for salmonella before it is sold and verified by independent laboratories to be salmonella-free. Never mind that the drying process that this meat goes through would necessarily kill any potential salmonella pathogens that had escaped detection. Regulators insists that only strict procedural guidelines that they set up can assure a salmonella-free product. That means the introduction of nitrates and nitrites – chemicals that violate Denittis’ old school ways (not to mention the taste buds).

This desire to regulate process and not results leads to, perhaps, the most harmful detriment of regulation; it allows no room for new innovation – even if that innovation is demonstrably safe. Il Mondo Vecchio’s desire to use ice chests instead of refrigerators, sea salt instead of nitrates, and innumerable other changes are simply outside the regulatory framework that the USDA has established – and changing that framework is a red tape nightmare that businesses don’t have the time, money, or expertise to pursue.

In this case, DeNittis could perform a “challenge study” – essentially meant to demonstrate current rules are incorrect and shouldn’t apply to his salumeria. The study would cost DeNittis $7,000 and take at least six months, during which Il Mondo Vecchio could not make or sell any sausage – a cost no small business could endure. The irony, of course, is that techniques that have been ossified into the regulatory framework are both newer and less healthy than the old school techniques that Il Mondo Vecchio has brought into the 21st Century.

Perhaps, however, it is all worth it. Sure we lose the creations of a sausage maker in Denver but, on the whole, we prevent salmonella outbreaks that could kill hundreds of people. Better safe than sorry, right? I could quote the famed trope of Benjamin Franklin, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”  But I think data is more convincing; in the past 15 years of increasingly stringent and overbearing regulation, salmonella outbreaks have increased 10 percent. Given the choice between more regulation or more pepperoni, I’ll take the pepperoni.

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