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Calling Local Meat Processors: USDA is Here to Help

David Pearlstein worked with USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service to build a small-scale sausage facility in Seattle. Photo by Mat Wright What do you get when you combine a reference librarian, a garage, and the Small Plant Help Desk of USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service?

You get Link Lab Artisan MeatsThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., a successful small business in Seattle making sausage from local, sustainably-produced meat.

Link Lab owner David Pearlstein, a reference librarian by training, moved to Seattle in 1994 and was bowled over by the abundance of local foods in the area. "Behind every one of these local ingredients was a farmer, rancher, fisherman, or some person who was excited to share their hard work and their passion for their trade," says Pearlstein. "This was not something I'd ever experienced or spent much time thinking about until I moved out to this part of the country."

Over the next 10 years, he found himself drawn to sausage-making, perfecting recipes that used fresh ingredients from local farmers. He decided to launch a business. But his background compelled him to do his research first. As he met with butchers, restaurant owners, and sausage merchandisers, "I quickly learned that there was a lot of misinformation and confusion out there regarding what's allowed, who regulates different types of food production, and what path you need to follow to connect the dots and get a legal sausage business running," he says.

Pearlstein was interested in selling his products wholesale, not directly to consumers. But wholesalers must have their facilities inspected by USDA - and he was proposing to build his facility inside his garage in the city of Seattle.

Several people urged him to give up the dream, saying that he'd never get a retrofitted garage through the USDA inspection process. Luckily, one colleague recommended that he call USDA's Small Plant Help Desk.

The Small Plant Help Desk was launched in December 2009 as a one-stop shop for operators of small and very small meat, poultry and egg product establishments. USDA staff take calls from people like Pearlstein and help explain agency requirements, provide information and guidance, and research issues. "There are a lot of rules to be aware of and to follow," Pearlstein says, "but the Help Desk narrowed the scope for me and directed me to information that was pertinent to the kind of operation I wanted to build."

He wanted to make sure that his plan would pass muster before he spent money building the facility, so he ran it by USDA staff. He received feedback, made adjustments, and started building. He scheduled his initial USDA site visit in November 2010. "When they walked in, I think they were amazed," he says. "Everything was where it was supposed to be. But I understood what was needed before I got started, so I built it right the first time." He was in business three months later.

After a year and a half, he's hired two part-time employees and is selling wholesale to 15 restaurants and 7 retailers. He's also partnering with farmers to develop products for them. "Craig Mayberry of Heritage Lane Farms hires me to make sausage for him to sell to his retail customers," says Pearlstein. "So up north by Bellingham, we have Link Lab Sausage with a Heritage Lane Farm label on it. It's been amazing to be able to tell a farmer, ‘We can do this legally and this is going to work for you.'"

A top priority for Pearlstein has been to tell the story of the men and women behind the meat he uses in his sausage - to help consumers learn more about where there food comes from. That connection is inherent in the Link Lab name. "That link is not just the shape of the sausage; it's the connection between thoughtful meat consumers who want to do the right thing and farmers who are already doing the right thing," he says.

Of course, Pearlstein still deals with frustrations. There's a lot of paperwork. But, he says, "Every one of these requirements has a purpose. It's a lot of effort, but I care about food safety."

The Small Plant Help Desk can be reached between 8am and 4pm EST, Monday through Friday, at 1-877-FSISHelp.