I’m thankful for USDA regulators…Not!

Peter Hoffman, chef of the Savoy restaurant, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times addressing one of the food issues I find most idiotic.

Mr. Hoffman got an offer from one of his local vendors (the Savoy specializes in locally produced vegetables and meats) for an entire Tamworth pig. He ponders whether or not to take it in view of today’s regulatory atmosphere.

If I really am dedicated to cooking by the seasons and supporting local agriculture, I thought, now would be the obvious time to buy a whole pig. Ideally, I would break it down into primal cuts, put the hams in salt for the next month, and then hang them at room temperature for two years, allowing them to slowly dry into prosciutto. And why not grind up the dark, fatty shoulders with salt, pepper and juniper, stuff the mixture into casings, and then leave the sausages in a cool room for six weeks to naturally ferment, developing delicious, tangy porcine flavors?

I can’t, because the United States Department of Agriculture and the local health departments do not allow commercial processing of meat without refrigeration.

Say what? We here in the good ol’ US of A can’t buy prosciutto, serrano, and other cured meats made the traditional way?



Nope. Thanks to our leaders and regulators in our nanny state we can’t purchase these delicious products unless they are cured in facilities that keep the temperature below the mandated 42 degrees. Problem is that at this low temperature many of the chemical reactions responsible for the wonderful taste of these products made in the traditional way can’t take place.

Italy’s finest prosciutto pro-ducers and Spain’s great Ibérico arti-sans hold their products at 55 to 60 degrees, a temperature range that they say enhances flavors, without causing health problems.

Mr. Hoffman expresses wonder at the idiocy of the USDA regulations:

This is astonishing, because since Neolithic times, people have safely cured and preserved meats without refrigeration. Europeans have turned curing into an art, and the best processors are revered craftsmen who earn national medals of honor. Salt, time and a good dose of fresh air are the only additions needed to produce salsicce, culatello and 24-month-old prosciutto or serrano — foods that Americans smuggle home from Europe in their luggage.

If you’ve ever eaten prosciutto in Italy or serrano in Spain you understand the taste and texture difference between quality cured meats and the pale substitutes we have here that are cured in accordance with USDA regulations. Even the products that we import from those countries have to meet USDA regulations to be eligible for importation, so you can’t get the true taste from them despite their origin.


Serrano ham

What can we do? Given the pigheadedness of most everyone in the regulatory business, not much I suspect. Mr. Hoffman has a recommendation that is sure to fall on deaf ears.

What we need is to invert the logic [unfortunately, sadly lacking amongst the regulatory tribe] now applied to meat safety. Rather than apply refrigeration standards to an ancient and safe method of preservation, we need an alternative set of standards that take into account what salting and drying can do to discourage the growth of bacteria. Federal and local health officials should recognize artisanal methods as an alternative to refrigeration.

We can go through the motions of writing letters to representatives, but with the small amounts of money at stake, I doubt that any will get too excited about the enterprise. Sadly, that’s the way our system seems to work.

And a word to the wise..don’t tell the customs inspectors that you’re bringing these products in if you do get some while in Europe, or they will get snagged. And probably find their way into the customs inspectors cupboard.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “I’m thankful for USDA regulators…Not!

  1. I was in Calgary, Alberta this past summer and went to a place called Spolumbo’s, which is justifiably famous for its sausages. I don’t think Canada’s laws are as strict as the US, but I was sad that I couldn’t bring any home because they rocked. There was a very definite taste difference–not so much spice as pork. Thanks to the food police, Americans have grown to love bland tasteless food.

    Hi Patricia–

    If you couldn’t bring them back here I’m sure it’s because they were cured the right way and didn’t meet the idiotic USDA guidelines.  And you are right, there is a definite taste difference.  Many people think the food is so much better in France and Italy because of the soil or the breeds of animals or whatever when the real reason is that those foods are made the traditional way instead of the USDA-approved way as they must be made here.

    You would think that if these foods were so dangerous made in the traditional way that the French and the Italians would be dying like flies from food borne diseases.  The reality is that as a people they outlive us.



  2. I am sure it is illegal to make these yummies at home, BUT… Does anyone know where to get recipies so I can try it at home. Ever since going lowcarb my wife and I have tried reproducing so many commercailly available foods at home and using organic ingredients, sometimes with good results. Is it technically illegal to make your own bacon? I know Alton Brown dedicated a half hour episode to it on “Good Eats.”

    Hi David–

    As I understand it, it is not unlawful to cure meat at home for personal consumption.  It’s only if you try to sell it that you run into problems.  If you do try to do it yourself, make sure you do it correctly.

    Keep us all posted.



  3. This is very frustrating. We don’t know our enemy, we have no facts about the reasonableness of our food regulations. We don’t know why. All we know is that we have enemies that don’t want us to have what we want.

    We have protestors that fight against bigotry and war. But where is the movement against our food enemies? I am ready to sign up but don’t know where.

    Hi David–

    I feel the same frustrations, possibly even more since I have had the heavy hand of regulators directly upon me.  I’m going to try to get up a post (today, I hope) on my thoughts on the regulatory mess we’re all in along with my belief that it’s going to get nothing but worse.



  4. This is a subject near to my heart. My husband, a former Brit, just loves French saucisson sec (dry French salami) and I have learned to appreciate it as well. We indulge whenever we go to Europe and do the best we can when at home in California. We haven’t dared to try to flaut US Customs with it. Chicken, I guess.

    I don’t know about the legalities of processing an entire hog at home, but I can’t imagine that already-butchered cuts from a small processor are illegal to self-cure for one’s own consumption. I have been contemplating this myself (after buying a heavy duty grinder to grind whole chickens with bones for cat food), but don’t have the right temperature/humidity location for dry curing yet. But we do have a local “German-style” butcher with a California licensed small-processor facility that will transport and process animals purchased at the county fair, so that helps with the whole animal problem.

    I have also salt/sugar cured salmon in the refrigerator using directions from Nourishing Traditions cookbook, by Sally Fallon & Mary Enig. It’s quite easy and far less expensive than purchasing gravlax.

    One great resource for those contemplating home curing is the book Charcuterie: the Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcun. Lots of recipes for easily made things like bacon and fresh sausage & more. Dry-cured sausages are included, too. The book is specifically written for the homecook level, so a grinder accessory for a stand mixer (like Kitchenaid) is adequate and does not required huge restaurant or commercial machines.

    Another fun one, though not specifically about meat preservation, is Fergus Henderson’s book, Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking (released in paperback in the US as The Whole Hog, I think). Heavy on the now less-commonly used cuts of meat and organs, the collection of recipes honors the animal by using as much of it as possible, which just happens to be healthful as well as delicious. Recipes include haggis (yum!) and Henderson’s restaurant’s signature dish, Roasted Bone Marrow with Parsley Salad (double yum!!). Some cured dishes include Cured Beef with Celeriac; Dried Salted Pig’s Liver; Cured Ham; Pickled Herrings; Salting Cod; & more. Not your average cookbook by a long shot.

    I have no connection to the books or authors mentioned or their publishers, other than being happy to have them in my food book collections. They probably aren’t that easy to find at the usual bookstores, except by special order (especially the Nose to Tail Eating, which comes from the UK), but all are available through Amazon.

    Hi Anna–

    Thanks so much for the tips on the books. I’ve taken the liberty to link the titles in your comment to the Amazon.com pages for these books. I’ve ordered them both and will put MD to work immediately upon their arrival. We’re both keen to try to do this ourselves because–as you’ve discovered–eating the real thing in Europe destroys one’s taste for the namby-pamby products we can get here made in accordance with USDA regulations.

    I’ll keep everyone posted on MD’s efforts.



  5. I too cure salmon with salt, sugar and dill (lots of it!), a recipe a learned in Sweden, together with other ways of preserving/curing herring and other fish. The taste is just unbelievable! The person I learned that from actually used to have their salmon and other foods (strawberries, other meats and stuff you’d think would go bad without refrigeration) in their cellar! Well, not a cellar per se, it wasn’t underground either, just a cave they had in their property that kept the temperature constant all year round. But the regulator’s standards, I should be dead by now.

    Somebody esle already mentioned but I’ll add my opinion with respect to the book Nourishing Traditions. It has great recipes for traditional cooking that can be done at home.

    Hi Gabe–

    Thanks for the comment. My grandparents had a cellar where they stored all the same kind of stuff. By regulatory standards, I, too, should be dead.

    I’m a fan of the book Nourishing Traditions myself.



  6. David E. above said that he wanted to sign up to fight the enemy. “But where is the movement against our food enemies? I am ready to sign up but don’t know where.”

    Anna & Gabe above both mentioned Sally Fallon’s & Mary Enig’s book, Nourishing Traditions. They not only wrote a book but they also started an organization called the Weston A Price Foundation which is the movement that David E. is seeking. They have local chapters (> 400 hundred I believe), are seeking to legalize raw milk, ban soy infant formula, and many other things and are generally radical whole fooders. They also have an outstanding quarterly magazine, website, and an annual conference with most excellent speakers.

    Go to http://www.westonaprice.org/splash_2.htm

    Hi Porter–

    The Weston Price Foundation is a good place to start.  I don’t agree with all their recommendations, but on the whole, I support them, and have even contributed money myself.  Their website is a fount of information, especially about the anti-saturated fat idiocy that abounds.



  7. Watch out!!! You can spend hours, nay, days on the Weston A. Price website. It isn’t well-designed, but it is a treasure trove of reading. I still don’t get the enzyme depeletion theories (aren’t most food enzymes inactivated by the acid barrier in the stomach?), but have found a lot of sense on many of the WAPF recommendations.

    One thing that my local NT online discussion group agrees on is that too much salt is recommended in many of the NT fermentation recipes; we all cut back on the salt amounts. Another good fermentation cookbook is Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz.

    Thanks to what I have learned from NT and other sources, our family now uses only raw milk, cream, and butter and we love it. Several of our friends have started getting some raw milk, too. I started culturing my own yogurt and creme fraiche (I’m waiting for my 8 yo son to ask for creme fraiche at a friend’s house :-).

    On a recent drive through central California, we even stopped by the raw dairy for a tour, after passing many, many cows confined in stinky, manure-filled pens. “Our” dairy’s cows were out grazing on verdant pasture with a variety of grasses, with lovely green, sweet-grassy smelling cow patties here and there. Even my 2nd grade son saw the sense of it. He said he’d rather be a grass-eating cow than a manure-standing cow. You know, we didn’t even see a barn at this dairy. These cows are out in the sun all the time, virtual Vitamin D factories. The milking parlor is pulled out to the cows in to the field by a tractor! I think these might be the only truly Happy Cows in California, marketing claims notwithstanding.

    Sorry, raw milk makes me type too much.


    Hi Anna–

    Thanks for the long comment. Keep drinking that raw milk and keep typing.

    I agree about the WPF website: there is much that is good, especially Mary Enig’s pieces on trans fats and saturated fats; but other parts need to be taken with a grain of salt. I, too, enjoyed Wild Fermentation and have made a few of the recipes.

    What is the name of the raw milk dairy in California? I wouldn’t mind taking a trip by there myself if it isn’t too far afield.Cheers–


  8. Oh, please go! You won’t regret it. Organic Pastures is located near Fresno, CA (actually it is in Kerman, which is next to Raisin City, which is actually a bunch of grape fields from what I could see :-). If a visit to OPDC in the near future is not feasible, be sure to find out when an OPDC raw milk lecture or event might be in your area.

    Mark McAfee is the owner/founder of OPDC and several of his family members are very involved with the dairy, too. He’s not your typical reticent farmer; he’s a really dynamic guy! I went to his lecture at the Price-Pottenger Foundation near San Diego last year, after we had been using raw dairy for a few months and was wowed by what the man is doing for raw dairy across the country (PPF also offers the lecture on audio CD for a small fee – it’s great car or iPod listening and sharing with skeptics!).

    I think you would really enjoy meeting Mark McAfee and seeing how REAL milk ought to be produced (pastured, sustainable, and with the shortest, most direct route possible to consumer). McAfee is much, much more than a dairy farmer, he’s a movement leader.

    It would rock my world if I could get your two great minds together!

    http://www.organicpastures.com Cheers, Anna

    Hi Anna–

    Thanks for the info.  If I get the chance I’ll stop by the farm.



  9. As an MD I would have thought that you would do a little more research on the topics you discuss in your blog. What you have written is completely unfounded in reality. It is indeed possible to produce these products in the United States.

    I own a small business that makes dry cured sausage, prosciutto, and other traditional products. In fact the USDA has regulations more favorable to the production of these products than those outlined in the Codex Alimentarius. You are indeed allowed to ferment products at “room temperature” and then dry them at slightly cooler temperatures…just like traditional European methods. The problem comes with uninformed local health inspectors who tout refrigeration below 40F as the only way to hold and process meats. Furthermore, small producers are sometimes ignorant as to the science behind the process and develop a hatred towards health regulations.

    There are regulations that make it a bit harder to produce uncooked dried traditional products like saucisson sec, but these are very valuable to protect against E. coli O157:H7 poisoning. The simple requirement to produce these products is to perform a test at the end of the production to ensure that each batch doesn’t contain these bacteria. The test costs about $40 and can be performed within 48h at most food laboratories (and there are many small local ones).

    Please feel free to contact me if you still wish to discuss this further…or anyone else for that matter jsig88@gmail.com