The Meat of the Matter: On Black Earth Meats and Bolzano
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 1
Editor's Note: We're so proud to announce that "The Meat of the Matter: On Black Earth Meats and Bolzano" received Edible Communities' 2015 EDDY Awards Critics' Choice Award in the Feature Article-Food Artisan category. "The Meat of the Matter wins for examining a complex issue in an unbiased and historically-based way," said judges Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell. You can read what else the judges had to say here. We are thrilled with the result. Please, enjoy.
Meat is a personal and rarely, if ever, neutral subject. As author Robert Kunzig puts it, “[Meat] is unhealthy, nutritious, cruel, delicious, unsustainable and all- American…the stuff of fierce debate” (Kunzig, 2014). The debate is not over the braising, roasting, grilling and sautéing of meat—the foodie porn that has saturated the media (but unfortunately few home kitchens). It’s over what happens before the meat arrives on the plate—the raising, killing, slaughtering and butchering that delivers meat from beast to bite.
Today’s meat politics push quantity over quality with increasingly consolidated, streamlined industrial systems designed to raise livestock in confined spaces, slaughter behind closed doors, butcher and process for efficiency, and preserve for global shipment and long shelf life. The industry endgame is about building and supporting a system that produces a lot of cheap meat that can be distributed anywhere in the world. And it’s a system that has gifted the world with social, economic and environmental compromises.
Attempts to clean up the industry have resulted in increased regulations that, instead of providing transparency for consumers, reward big over small, often hurting those who raise, slaughter and process animals on family farms and in small community butcher shops. Too big to fail is scary, but too small to survive is even scarier.
Wisconsin is at the heart of the debate. Just ask Scott Buer of Milwaukee’s now closed Bolzano Artisan Meats and Bartlett Durand of Black Earth’s now shuttered Black Earth Meats; or the more than 200 farmers who were left high and dry with the highly contentious closing of both businesses in 2014; or the 50-plus retail outlets and restaurants left to source quality meat from other processors.
In 2010, Edible Madison featured both Black Earth Meats (summer, issue no. 1) and Bolzano Artisan Meats (winter, issue no. 3) as two successful—and growing—small, artisan, meat-based businesses with a triple-bottom-line approach to building a healthy food system in Wisconsin. These businesses mattered. And they still matter. They were critical pieces to this state’s regional food system. What happened between then and now to bring these businesses to their knees?
Passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act, and later, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, “put federal inspectors in all packinghouses whose products entered interstate or foreign commerce. Government inspectors began grading beef and pork in the 1920s; in 1967 Congress required states to perform the same inspection and grading duties in plants selling within state boundaries” (Wade, 2005). Wisconsin is one of 27 states with state-operated meat inspection programs, giving roughly 300 processors the ability to process and sell meat within state lines without federal inspection.
After World War II, American meat consumption sky-rocketed, and the industry was increasingly consolidated. In 2000, average U.S. meat consumption reached 195 pounds per person, 57 pounds higher than in the 1950s (USDA, 2003). Peaking in 2007, consumption is trending downward as attitudes about meat change due to high prices, health concerns and environmental impacts.
Limiting fatal contamination is one of the industry’s key performance indicators. From 1998 to 2008, American eaters experienced 13,352 foodborne disease outbreaks, which resulted in an estimated 629 deaths per year from land animals. While worrisome, these numbers are relatively low, considering a typical industrial slaughterhouse can process up to 400 cows, 1,000 hogs or more than 3,000 chickens per hour.
Regulation is good. Regulation saves lives. But the system is highly complex and caters to big agri-business. It assumes that all meat is contaminated regardless of farming, slaughter or processing practices. It assumes consumers can’t be trusted to handle and prepare meat properly. It remains the number one hurdle in creating equitable systems that allow access to minimally processed, local and humanely raised and processed meat. With that said, food safety regulations are here to stay, which means innovation is needed to find solutions for the complexity and cost associated with the alwaysevolving industry standards.
Scott Buer and Bartlett Durand devoted their lives and bank accounts to the belief that building a local/regional food system based on providing the highest quality meat would create a lifeline for family farms, grow higher wage jobs, and build a more sustainable food economy in Wisconsin. They also believed—and still believe—that the simple act of eating can have profound impacts on human and environmental health and well-being.
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.
Jonny Hunter, of the ever-evolving Madison-based Underground Food Collective, the mothership of Underground Butcher and Underground Meats, is sympathetic to the challenges faced by others in his industry. Hunter advocates for an increased level of awareness, knowledge and innovation at regulatory agencies. Hunter enthusiastically admits, “I love DATCP. We wouldn’t exist without them. But turnover is high, and some regulations don’t fit small processors. Issues with regulations are systematic, and we need more efforts to help small businesses. Food safety decisions are often based on risk management and not on science.”
A USDA Economic Research Report admits that perishable products are “governed by a complex and evolving set of food safety regulations,” which means “meat and poultry can require equally complex supply chains involving multiple partners. It also reports, "Regulations related to meat and poultry processing can be complicated to understand, technically difficult to implement, and time consuming in terms of recordkeeping” (Gwin et al., 2013). Coupled with the high cost of starting up and maintaining a processing business, clearly it can be difficult for small processors to get a leg up…and stay up.
To help alleviate at least one of the necessary high costs they must overcome—food safety regulation—Hunter wants to launch an organization that would increase information sharing about food safety for small processors. Hunter says big industry shares information more freely because it is critical to their bottom line. With small processors, consultants are the information keepers, and they often over-charge to replicate the same science again and again. But, he says, “If information were shared more freely [between small processors], we would see more efficient models.”
As an initial step, Underground Meats has launched an “open-source educational approach to sharing the complex process of becoming a USDA-certified processor.” So far, three processing plants and seven restaurants have used their open-source HACCP plan, potentially saving each business tens of thousands of dollars. Hunter hopes that through increased information-sharing over collaborative platforms, innovations in food safety will reduce operational challenges.
The other important issue affecting small processors more heavily than large ones is the trending belief that meat should be cheap. Many people want high quality at the lowest price, but cheapness comes with a rarely talked-about cost to someone along the production trail— usually the small processors and farmers.
Reports the USDA, “Local meat farmers and consumers are often startled that local meats can cost more than twice as much as commodity meats. To some degree, this is due to economies and diseconomies of scale: large, specialized plants handling large volumes of similar product can operate at a lower cost per unit than small plants that offer multiple services and small-batch, artisanal production. Certain costs, such as regulatory compliance and offal disposal, may be disproportionately high for smaller plants with no dedicated staff and lower volumes over which to spread those costs” (Emphasis added. Gwin et al., 2013).
Buer, Durand and Hunter agree that there’s a great need for more consumer education targeted at valuing the many people and steps involved with putting quality meat on the table, appropriate and sustainable pricing, and not shying away from cooking one’s own meat.
Says Durand, “The industry has made meat so scary. [Home cooks] fear that they won’t cook it right and will disappoint people.”
Buer warns that "the time of magic in the food movement may be waning." He wonders whether "consumers are willing to get on board, or will regulations determine what is on our dinner plates? The future lies in people connecting with food in a more direct way."
To help foster this direct connection, Buer made an exciting announcement on November 21: "Our exile is over, and we are back as a school of butchering and charcuterie!" Starting with a hands-on Whole Hog Butchering class on January 25 in Milwaukee, Buer hopes to keep the spirit of high-quality, artisan meat production alive through educating consumers about where to source and how to prepare good meat. (Learn more and register for the class at http://bit.ly/ bolzanoclass.)
“In consumer society we don’t realize our individual power,” Durand says. “We don’t realize how personal it is to have a real connection with community. Consumers mean everything to store keepers. This is incredibly powerful. Don’t be afraid of crossing the threshold and building relationships with those who raise, process, butcher and market your food. It’s a deeply personal thing to have a consumer transaction."
 Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points,” a process control system designed to identify and prevent microbial and other hazards in food production. Under the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP Systems regulations, USDA requires that all meat and poultry plants design and implement HACCP systems.
Christians, L. “Black Earth Meats Closes, Files $5.3 Million Suit Against Village.” The Capital Times, 23 July 2014.
Falkenstein, L. “Black Earth Meats fights to stay at current location.” Isthmus, 6 Jan 2014.
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