The Meat of the Matter: On Black Earth Meats and Bolzano
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 1
In April 2009, Buer and his wife, Christin, launched Bolzano Artisan Meats in Milwaukee’s Riverwest area. Bolzano meats were cured, dried and aged without being cooked, which made their products unique and highly sought-after. From 2011 to 2013, the bulk of sales were attributed to Bolzano’s growing line of naturally cured salamis.
With a background in food marketing, Buer understood quality control, so as a stateinspected (rather than USDA-inspected) facility, he adhered closely to Wisconsin food safety laws. Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), which manages meat inspection in the state, praised the business’s understanding of HACCP, and DATCP often sent trainees to tour the Bolzano facility.
Bolzano’s positive history with DATCP went sour on April 17, 2014, when the USDA recalled 5,700 pounds of salami, worth an estimated $50,000. The salami’s label included a USDA inspection mark that the Buers had applied for; however, the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service did not accept the application before the newly labeled salami was shipped. Because the recall was due to an incorrect label, not a product issue, the action was considered a “Class II recall,” meaning there was a remote likelihood that eating the product would result in health problems.
The recall prompted DATCP to inspect the plant, which is when it discovered Bolzano “had changed its processing without adequate verification of the safety of the changes” (Romell, 2014). As a result, DATCP suspended Bolzano’s processing license, claiming a change in processing was not adequately verified.
Despite DATCP’s claims to be “working with [Bolzano] to help them come into compliance,” no viable solution was met. DATCP’s communication director, Jim Dick, defended the department’s actions: "Our job is to protect the safety of our food with the authority that we're given. We go by the laws that give us the authority to check into food safety" (Romell, 2014).
The loss of so much product coupled with a suspended processing license and legal fees caused this small meat processor to cease operation. A small, family-run business that has limited inventory and can no longer produce a product has a very short lifeline.
Buer believes current Wisconsin food safety regulations make innovations in meat processing extremely challenging. Foods, not only meats, that are naturally cured, aged, dried and fermented are being phased out of the industry. Says Buer, “Large agri-business is setting the tone. What is safe and what is not will always favor the big companies. [When businesses are forced to close,] people are not seeing the jobs that are not created. Facilities never have an opportunity to expand. The opportunity is lost and other states will begin to fill the market gaps.”
Seven years ago, Bartlett Durand and a small group of investors purchased an existing meat processing facility in Black Earth and sunk a fortune into improvements required to meet federal USDA food safety standards. Their intent was to “create a market of respect and product traceability within the local meat industry” (Johnson, 2010). They did exactly that and grew into one of the most respected meat processors and brands in the industry.
In 2013, business was so good that Durand and his investors expanded their wholesale and retail sales business with the opening of a community butcher and retail shop called Conscious Carnivore, on University Avenue in Madison, where the mission is “Respect for every animal, on four feet or two.”
The dream came to a crashing halt in December 2013 when the Village of Black Earth, citing odor and noise complaints from nearby residents, ordered Black Earth Meats (BEM) to cease slaughtering operations at their Mill Street location, which had served as a slaughter facility since the 1950s. According to Durand, the business held a long-term Conditional Use Permit from the village, which maintained BEM’s right to continue slaughtering. Still, the village issued the business with multiple citations and gave BEM three months to come up with a plan that the village could also agree with to move slaughtering operations to a different location.
BEM enlisted the help of a third-party economic development consultant and delivered four options to the village in June 2014. The village did not approve any of the options and authorized its attorney to carry forward with legal action against BEM.
Faced with lost business, a lost $700,000 USDA guaranteed loan approval that was to be used for restructuring the business and improving slaughter efficiencies, and mounting legal fees, BEM closed its doors on July 22, 2014. The Black Earth facility had employed 50 people and supported more than 200 area farmers—a loss that was deeply felt within the regional food community.
Durand found himself with a potential financial loss of more than $1 million and a legal battle with a village he loves. Durand was critical of nearby residents who banded together to call the health department many times in one day, of the village acting on behalf of a vocal minority, and of its unwillingness to collaborate on a solution. However, Village Board President Patrick Troge objected to reports that the village was actively “shutting them down” and addressed Durand’s claims in January, saying, "We asked for a plan to relocate the slaughterhouse only” (Falkenstein, 2014).
"It's important people understand we were working with him, it was a collaborative effort,” Village Clerk and Treasurer Shelly Benish said in July. “We're really making an effort to try to work together. Any business to the community is vital. We work to preserve that” (Christians, 2014).
In October 2014, the Dane County Circuit Court ruled in favor of Black Earth Meats, determining that the business was protected by the state’s Right to Farm Act and did not pose “a substantial threat to public health or safety.” Black Earth Meats’ lawsuit against the Village of Black Earth for damages was moved up to federal court the same month. The victory, however, won’t re-open Black Earth Meats’ doors.
Today, Durand is restructuring once again with the help of several passionate investors. The Conscious Carnivore retail store in Madison remained open even after the Black Earth facility’s closure, so they are focusing energy on opening a handful of Conscious Carnivore stores, emphasizing small-scale distribution and partnering with existing processing facilities. Exploring the benefits of community finance models and community ownership, a “more passionate and inspired than ever” Durand has kicked off a series of crowdfunding initiatives to help launch his vision.