UNITY — A few months ago, sausage maker and former high-end chef Matthew Secich was riding high on a wave of publicity about his cured meat and cheese store in Unity’s Amish community.

That exposure brought in new business from as far away as New Jersey and New York from customers interested in trying local sausages cured and smoked without the aid of electricity or technology.

It also caught the attention of state regulators.

Now staff from the quality assurance division of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are working with Secich to get him to come into compliance with the state’s food code. Specifically, the agency is helping the former chef come up with a specific plan to prevent bacterial contamination and see if his ice house will meet refrigeration standards.

The department isn’t shutting the charcuterie shop down, but the regulations are a burden for his family business, Secich said in an interview Monday. The paperwork and record-keeping might lead him to abandon the venture. He runs the shop with his wife and has a young family. With all the time he thinks it will take to comply with the state requirements, it might not be worth the effort to stay in place.

“The laws are a lot to handle for us as a small business,” Secich said. Requirements for measuring temperature at the beginning, middle and end of a meat-smoking process is particularly onerous, since he has to record the data for every 25 pounds of meat he processes. An average run is around 300 pounds, Secich said.

Without the aid of a computer, he is using pen and paper to record the temperature readings.

The department never told him about the regulations when he got his license to operate, Secich added. He was informed of the regulations only after the media buzz his shop attracted.

“We would never have opened the business if we had known,” he said.

“The state is working with us. They are just abiding by laws that are impossible for the common man,” he added.

Steve Giguere, the quality assurance program manager at the Department of Agriculture, said Secich didn’t know about the regulations because of a timing mistake.

Specifically, an update to the Maine Food Code in 2014 required retail food processors to have a Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point, known as a HACCP, to identify opportunities for bacterial contamination and growth during food processing in retailers that sell ready-to-eat foods.

“If he was making sausage that wasn’t ready to eat, it would be a much simpler process,” Giguere said.

When Secich got his license to operate, the regulators were still catching up on changes to the code, Giguere said Tuesday.

“There is a lag time between it being put in the regulation and getting our staff trained on the new rules,” he said. The license fell into that gap.

“He got the license, but he didn’t know he needed (the HACCP),” Giguere added.

The media attention Secich’s store got led Giguere to question whether the measures were in place for his business. Problem areas include measuring the addition of nitrates, monitoring smoking temperatures and measuring cool-down times.

The department isn’t shutting Secich down or curtailing his processing, and his staff is working to come up with a specific HACCP plan for his business. Developing that plan might take time; the documents are tailored to different businesses and reflect variations processors use, Giguere said.

Secich is far from the only food processor who doesn’t have an HACCP on the books. Giguere couldn’t provide a specific number, but he said the department staff will be working with lots of businesses using different processing methods to come into compliance with the updated food code.

That Secich uses an ice house for refrigeration also set off red flags for the department.

There is no data showing that the ice house can maintain the required 41 degree temperature to store meat, and there are concerns that the ice cut out of local ponds could lead to cross-contamination, Giguere said. He inquired in states that have large Amish populations, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, to see whether they allow ice houses for businesses like Secich’s.

“They don’t have ice houses and they would not allow an ice house. They would require some form of mechanical refrigeration,” he said. The department staff suggested a liquefied natural gas operated refrigerator instead, but Secich is adamant about using his ice house, Giguere added.

Still, the department isn’t prepared to force him to use another method until it has data to show whether the ice house can meet required temperatures. Giguere said the staff will monitor temperatures for the rest of the year to see if there is a way to work out a solution without requiring another refrigeration method.

“I’m not going to just say no without any facts to back it up,” he said.

In general, the department will continue to work with Secich to come into compliance for as long as progress is being made. There is no deadline for Secich to meet and he can continue making and selling food for the foreseeable future, Giguere added.

“We can’t get around the public safety requirements. We can find unique solutions to come into compliance,” Giguere said.

“But at the end of the day, the leading factor is to make sure the public is protected from food-borne illness,” he added.

The process has been frustrating for Secich. The state rules don’t look as though they were written with small businesses in mind, and trying to come into compliance seems as though it will be too much to deal with, he said.

All he wanted to do when he started the shop was to live simply and practice his craft, and he’s certain he’s never sold any meat that wasn’t completely safe, he said. Regulatory compliance has thrown a wrench into his plans, and he doesn’t know if he’ll keep his charcuterie open.

“I just don’t want to make any promises that we are going to be here,” he said Monday.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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