Letter to the Editor

Sometimes the little guy can't seem to win

Thursday, August 7, 2008

I relocated to the Calico Rock area in late 2005 to assist my aging mother in the management and operation of Merrythought Farm. I began participating as a vendor at the Mountain Home farmers' market in 2006, where I had the pleasure of my first encounter with the Arkansas Department of Health.

One of the products I market is a fresh salsa. One day I was visited by a Health Department employee based in Baxter County. He advised me that in order to offer my salsa to the public it would have to be produced in a "certified" kitchen as it was a "prepared food." I had researched the cost of installing a certified kitchen in my home and found that it could amount to $15,000 - $20,000 -- much too great an expense than could be justified by my sale of 10 pints of salsa per week. I explained my dilemma to the gentleman and asked if he had any suggestions for a "little guy" like me. He recommended that I produce the salsa in my church kitchen and donate a percentage of the sales each week to the church as an ongoing fundraiser. As church kitchens used in fundraising efforts were exempt, this would be one method I could utilize and be in compliance with state regulations. I followed his suggestion and operated this way without incident for the entire 2006 market season.

In the spring of 2007, I started and became the market manager of the Calico Rock Downtown Market. Soon after the start-up of the market I was contacted by an Izard County Health Department staffer who advised me of the same certified kitchen requirement with which I had dealt the year prior in Baxter County. Somewhat exasperated as I had already dealt with the issue, I explained the exemption under which I was operating and, regrettably, was probably a bit short with the gentleman. Well, I apparently "ruffled his feathers" because within 30 minutes he called back to advise that the exemption did not apply in my situation and I would need to begin producing my salsa in a certified kitchen or cease sales. My response was that I would produce my salsa in the certified kitchen of Don Quixote's Restaurant, located on historic Main Street in Calico Rock, and thereby bring myself into compliance. Issue resolved -- or so one would think.

Soon after, I received correspondence from the same Izard County official informing me of an additional Food Code requirement with which I would now have to comply, the battle lines were drawn. Since that first communication, I have received no fewer than four additional pieces of formal correspondence from a variety of Arkansas Health Department staffers, from as far away as Ash Flat and Little Rock, each citing some new and/or different regulation with which I must comply, or cease operations. Of course, throughout this whole process these state employees were consuming increasing amounts of taxpayer financed time and resources. A wise use of public funds to be sure, as I was most definitely a high level threat to the public health -- me and my 10 pints of salsa.

After dealing with this increasingly ludicrous situation for nearly two years, I felt that it was time I went public so others could see how their tax dollars are being spent and where their Health Department officials have elected to direct their efforts. In any job we all have limited time and therefore have to make decisions about allocating that time in the most effective manner, hopefully in a way that will do the most good toward achieving the objectives of the job. I would think that our Health Department officials' time (and our money) could be more effectively spent inspecting restaurants that serve hundreds of meals a day, or at food storage facilities where food brought in from who-knows-where sits prior to being distributed to the mega-chain grocery stores, rather than focusing on one little farmers' market vendor who is trying to offer fresh, locally produced product to his neighbors. We might not have the current salmonella outbreak if our public health officials were making better choices as to where they expended their time and on what they focused their attention.

Rich Fischer, Operations Mgr

Merrythought Farm, Calico Rock, AR