Three years after city health officials embargoed hundreds of pounds of cured meats at local restaurants until they could be deemed safe, Portland chefs have stopped using the curing salts that added color and flavor to meat but that the city considers a potential danger to the public.

The meat and poultry that were shelved during the 2015 crackdown on curing salts and certain other food preparations were either thrown out or, if they were found to be safe, released back to the restaurants for sale. The action still angers some chefs who felt health officials were uneducated in these techniques – both newfangled and Old World – that had become trendy in restaurant kitchens across the United States, and who lost money when their food was abruptly embargoed.

From January 2015 through December 2016, the city impounded nearly 1,000 pounds of cured and vacuum-sealed meats from 10 Portland restaurants. The restaurants had to store the food but were not allowed to sell it until it had been tested at their own expense to determine if it was safe. The 301 pounds of cured beef brisket put on hold at Nosh Kitchen Bar, for example, was estimated at the time to be worth at least $2,000.

Smaller restaurants across the country that want to dabble in curing meats but lack the staff to keep up with public health regulations have had similar experiences. Nashville, for one, is undergoing a similar crackdown.

Chefs like curing their own meats because it makes their restaurants stand out and attracts customers who like an artisanal approach to food. But Portland chefs appear to have decided that curing food in-house is not worth the paperwork and potential regulatory tangles. No restaurants have plans on file with the city indicating they are using sodium nitrite, also known as “pink salt,” to cure meats such as ham, bacon, brisket or pork belly in-house, according to Michael Russell, director of Portland’s permitting and inspections department. Some have simply taken the meats off their menus, he said, while others “are finding it more convenient just to buy the product.”

PINK SALT ‘MAKES A HAM TASTE LIKE HAM’

Wholesalers typically have the space and staff to properly monitor temperature and other conditions, Russell said, and undergo federal inspections.

Maine restaurants that use the salts are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to submit a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, or HACCP, plan and request a variance from the Maine Food Code. While the salts help prevent botulism, a potentially fatal illness caused by bacteria, use them wrong or use too much, and they can be harmful.

“It’s a particular type of salt that is regulated because it is a carcinogen, and if it were too strong – the amount of residual in the final product – it could be potentially harmful to someone who maybe had a heart condition,” said Tom Williams, the city’s health inspector team leader.

Some research has associated consumption of nitrites with an increased risk of diseases such as stomach and colon cancers, and heart disease. The U.S. National Toxicology Program has found nitrites to be safe at the levels used in the food industry, but a 2015 report from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said that curing with nitrites “can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing (carcinogenic) chemicals.”

Restaurants can still cure or age meats in their walk-in refrigerators, but they lack the flavor that comes with using pink salt. “It’s what makes a ham taste like ham and not like a pork chop,” Williams said.

Josh Craigue, chef at Salvage BBQ, is still bitter about having had to toss out 30 pounds of sausage and 40 pounds of bacon, worth an estimated $300-$400.

“I knew, in fact, it was safe because I’d been doing it for years,” he said. Craigue said within a week of being told the restaurant needed an HACCP plan, he and his colleagues started to do “hard-core research” on how to prepare a proper safety plan, and even had plans to do their own in-house testing. He said Salvage has since submitted “multiple” HACCP plans and has still not managed to get one approved, even after months of waiting. He said it feels like a case of bureaucracy getting ahead of itself before proper procedures are in place.

“We were the first ones to submit HACCP plans,” he said. “We were trying to spearhead this.”

VACUUM SEALING ALSO BEING REGULATED

Ultimately, the restaurant decided it wasn’t worth the time and expense to get their meat tested, and they threw it out.

The 2015 crackdown on certain food preparations also encompassed “reduced oxygen packaging” – or vacuum sealing – and sous vide cooking of vacuum-sealed meats. Sous vide cooking involves vacuum sealing meats, then cooking them at lower-than-normal temperatures for longer periods of time. Ten Portland restaurants have filed HACCP plans since 2015 indicating they are still using vacuum sealing. Vacuum sealing raw meat does not require a variance from the food code, so less paperwork is involved.

The regulations for vacuum-sealing require the restaurant to do continuous electronic monitoring, using a device that costs around $100. The device monitors the temperature in a walk-in freezer or refrigerator, and if it gets too warm an alarm goes off, health officials can download the data later and determine if food safety was compromised.

“If all of a sudden it started to defrost at 2 a.m., and then it froze again, we know that it was out of sync for several hours,” Russell said.

Vacuum-sealed meats can be stored for only 14 days, according to Williams.

“Say you want to cut up a bunch of steaks, (seal) them and throw them in your freezer,” Williams said. “That doesn’t count. You could leave them in the freezer for a month – there’s no safety issues when it’s frozen – but when you pull them out you would have to use them within 14 days. And that’s just to control the botulism risk” from vacuum sealing.

Vacuum-sealed cooked meats still require a variance, Williams said, “but 99 percent of the people who want to (seal) something want to do it with raw product anyway. They’re pretty much cutting meat and storing it.”

Harding Lee Smith, owner of several Portland restaurants, including the Corner Room and the Front Room, says he has an HACCP plan that would allow him to do “extensive” curing and vacuum-sealing of meats in-house at the Corner Room if he chose to, but he is not currently taking advantage of that certification. Smith was not one of the restaurateurs who had meat embargoed by the city.

Chef Justin Hogan takes a Reuben sandwich off the griddle at Nosh Kitchen Bar in Portland. Nosh used to purchase brisket to make its owned corned beef but now buys from a wholesaler because, owner Jason Loring says, regulations for curing meat became too onerous for such a small restaurant to deal with. (Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette)

RESTAURANTS AFFECTED BY THE EMBARGO

Salvage BBQ, Nosh Kitchen Bar, Old Port Sea Grill and the Portland Meatball Co., which has since closed, had their cured meats embargoed during the crackdown. Vacuum-sealed meats and/or poultry were embargoed at Duckfat, Local 188, the Thirsty Pig, Back Bay Grill, Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co., and Sonny’s, which has also closed.

Duckfat, Local 188, Hugo’s, Sonny’s, the Thirsty Pig, and Old Port Sea Grill all ended up discarding their food. Nosh Kitchen Bar, with its 301 pounds of cured beef brisket, and Back Bay Grill, which had 148 pounds of raw, vacuum-sealed beef and pork, had their food released back to them a month or two later and they were able to sell it.

Jason Loring, owner of Nosh Kitchen Bar, had the restaurant’s brisket tested, and the results went to Jason Bolton, a food safety specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, for review. The meat was declared safe. But if the restaurant wanted to continue curing meat in-house, Loring’s cooks would have had to submit an HACCP plan outlining the process they use to cure the brisket. Loring decided the regulations were too much for a small restaurant to deal with, and now buys corned beef from Kinnealey Meats in Massachusetts.

Loring still takes issue with how the situation was handled. The city sent only one notice to restaurants, he wrote in an email, “and then just started throwing out food.” He thinks it should have taken more time to work with the businesses.

“I was really disappointed in how the city handled themselves,” he said.

City officials say they are only trying to protect diners from getting sick.

“The reason why the procedures are so rigorous is because the danger is also significant if it’s done wrong,” Russell said.

Craigue, the chef at Salvage BBQ, has not given up on HACCP certification yet. He said he may, at some point, try again.

“It’s a little frustrating,” Craigue said. “I had a lot of things in place, and I had a lot of plans menu-wise.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad