Author Note: This is the sixth in a series of essays about starting a small food business in Virginia. This article was written in May, 2016. Future essays how the regulatory process turned out and other topics that I have not yet written about are forthcoming. I hope you enjoy the articles and feel free to express opposing and supporting opinions. The articles that have been written so far are:
1. Starting a Small Business in Virginia
2. Starting a Small Business in Virginia – The Krauts
3. Starting a Small Business in Virginia – The Regulations – Part 1
4. Starting a Small Business in Virginia – The Regulations – Part 2
5. Starting a Small Business in Virginia – The Investment
Sometimes when one meets the people behind the bureaucratic wall preconceived notions tumble down. I described in my fourth essay how I would have to ship or drive 42 samples of my kraut to the food scientist at Virginia Tech. I was feeling overwhelmed and depressed. Then I got an email from that food scientist, Joell Eifert, the Director of the Food Innovations Program of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She and other colleagues would be coming to the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC) on May 24th. She offered to test my sauerkraut in their lab. I had decided not to mail the samples to Blacksburg because I could not adequately control the temperature. Ms Eifert’s offer to test the samples in Painter, VA saved me ten hours of driving time. As I waited for her at the Eastern Shore AREC I still felt nervous and worried. Would she be formal and intimidating, throwing scientific terms at me and ordering me to do this and that? Would my 42 samples not be adequate? Had I made mistakes?
Turns out my worries were for naught. Ms Eifert is a normal person, very knowledgeable, and friendly! She offered to let me into the lab for the testing. We carried the samples downstairs to the lab and she set about calibrating the pH meter.
As she did this she answered questions I had about how to calibrate and walked me through the process. As this was happening, the group of scientists from Blacksburg visited the room and I met Mark Reiter, Associate Professor of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, and Bethany Wolters, a graduate student working with him. These are a fun bunch of people and I can only imagine the scientific pranks that go on there.
After the calibration we discussed the best way to test the kraut samples. Ms Eifert described to me how she uses an Oster Mason Jar Blender which is used to grind the kraut into smaller pieces. A pestle could also be used. As she worked she answered questions and gave me a folder into which she had thoughtfully placed various articles on food safety and fermentation, including a copy of an article she wrote. Ultimately we could not test the samples because most of them were frozen. They needed to defrost overnight.
As I drove home I thought about my experience and compared it with my notions of how the government should interact with the public. Ms Eifert singlehandedly reversed my negative opinion of food scientists with her friendly demeanor and willingness to discuss the kraut-making process and actually provide assistance, not roadblocks.
I compared this experience with the letter I had earlier received from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS): “To reiterate, you may not manufacture and/or sell any of the sauerkraut recipes until they have been completely reviewed by a process authority. The use of sprouted nuts in your products must be replaced with unsprouted nuts until those products are evaluated by a process authority.” Instead of offering me help to sell my products at the farmers’ markets using my very clean home kitchen until the Virginia Tech process authority (Ms Eifert) gave her approval, VDACS has put a stop to my entire operation. Here’s what VDACS could do to help me safely sell some products so I can begin recouping my investment:
1. Work with me to devise a process to test the pH of my sauerkraut so that it is in the safe range
2. Allow me to use my home kitchen to produce products for sale up to the limit specified by the Pickle Law ($3000)
3. Require, as specified by the Pickle Law, that my products be labeled with appropriate wording saying that my food is not inspected. This way, potential consumers can make a decision to buy my product or not, depending on the state of their health and their own values.
As I reread this article, words like “discuss”, “help”, and “answered questions” jumped out. I have actually heard these terms used with our local VDACS folks and I know for a fact that they helped a friend of mine set up a commercial operation. Ultimately I want to be in a commercial kitchen, and I want full process authority approval for my products. As a small producer, though, I would like a helping hand to get started in my own kitchen. These VDACS folks who deal with producers on a day to day basis are just following policy that is set by those higher up in their organization and the legislature. It occurs to me that upper VDACS management and our legislators frequently cross paths with lobbyists who are paid for by industrial food producers and large organizations like the Farm Bureau. Small sustainable farmers and producers have no lobby power nor do they have the funds to pay a lobbyist. Taking a day to visit their delegate or senator puts them behind their production schedules and they actually lose money. So it is the lobbyist representing large entities who works with the legislator to develop laws and regulations which tend to exclude the small local producer.
So ultimately, this is an essay about good and bad government. The best is epitomized by people like Joell Eifert of Virginia Tech, who educate and help. The worst is represented by those who create laws and regulations that stifle innovation and personal initiative, all in the name of safety. I have reached out to Delegate Robert Bloxom and Senator Lynwood Lewis to examine my situation and see if they can find some way to get my business going. I’m not doing this just for myself but for others who want to retain some independence in their lives by working for themselves and whose livelihoods depend on their businesses. Talk to your legislator if you want fewer and less onerous regulations.