Dawn Xiana Moon
August 11, 2011
The State of Illinois is shutting down local, artisan ice cream makers for such terrible offenses as using fresh fruit instead of fruit syrup and fresh cream instead of pre-packaged soft serve mix. What, you say? How can this be? Health officials in this state are known for being overzealous when it comes to making sure that small, independent businesses follow obscure rules – and when I say small and independent, I’m talking about businesses that are often owned and run by 1-2 people renting space in a shared, licensed commercial kitchen. These are not corporations with large amounts of money who have the capital to hire lawyers or contribute significant sums to political campaigns. No, these are real people, individuals who do their best to follow labyrinthine food regulations based on the information that they’re given by governmental agencies who don’t always agree on what the rules should be.
Illinois health regulators seem to hate anything that isn’t incredibly processed. Last year, they destroyed thousands of dollars worth of local fruit that had no health issues. Why? Monica Eng from the Chicago Tribune put it this way: “At best it was a victim of paper work confusion among city bureaucrats who couldn’t agree on a policy.” One woman was put out of business for six months.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Now, the health department is saying that Nice Cream, a local maker (read: primarily one woman, Kris Swanberg) that I’ve followed since reading this 2009 profile from the Chicago Reader, is being forced to shut down because she lacks a dairy permit. Nevermind that she and others in her field have been creating artisan ice creams for years without ever hearing that such a permit existed – or that they needed one. Nevermind that the office that issued their business licenses (the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection) failed to inform any of them that they needed one in order to operate. IDPH has spoken, and now Swanberg and others will need to use sub-par ingredients or cough up around $40,000 for a pasteurizing machine.
Processed ingredients would mean that Nice Cream – which built its reputation by using fresh, organic ingredients that are sourced from local farms – would be allowed operate without needing the dairy license. The problem with the dairy license is that in order to pass inspection, you have to make sure your bacteria levels are so low that using real ingredients simply doesn’t work.
Technically, using fresh strawberries is legal. However, IDPH does not recommend using them, because “when you try and clean a strawberry to make sure it doesn’t have any bacteria, it kind of deteriorates.” Irradiated strawberries apparently look fine but are somewhat lacking in the taste department. So IDPH explicitly suggests “strawberry syrup.” Fresh cream requires the dairy license, so the alternative would be to use premade ice cream mix, the kind of stuff that is full of stabilizers and additives and usually found at places like Dairy Queen. (If you’ve never done it, read the label of your grocery store ice cream sometime – if you’re not buying Häagen-Dazs, Ben and Jerry’s, or Breyers, you’ll probably be reading a long list of ingredients, half of which are near unpronounceable.) Clearly, the results of these changes would turn Nice Cream into a generic brand that’s barely worth mentioning, rather than the wizards who made me realize for the first time that strawberry ice cream could actually taste good. Better than good. Amazing.
Which brings us back to the pasteurizing machine and its $40,000 price tag. That’s a lot of money for a small business to find. But it’s not a lot of money for a large corporation, and that’s the type of organization that the rules were invented for. In fact, the rules about dairy licenses apply to the mega-corporation and the one-man show equally in the eyes of the state. Something’s wrong with that. Something’s wrong with the fact that Cargill can stay in business after having to recall 36 million pounds of salmonella-tainted turkey, but Nice Cream may not be able to stay in business after keeping a clean record. Something’s wrong with the fact that health departments are pushing businesses to produce processed food rather than fresh, locally-sourced food, which is much healthier. Something’s wrong here, and local ice cream may be a casualty of it.