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USDA kills the Crested Duck

| Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

“Every day I operate I have an inspector on site,” Beechview's Crested Duck Charcuterie executive chef and owner Kevin Costa explained during our interview. “We were not producing the same thing everyday so he could come and see what we were doing that day and decide how long he was going to stay.”

No matter, said a Washington bureaucrat. And so Costa is planning to close on Jan. 1.

Costa's experience navigating the federal regulations to run his small business are a prime example of why “having a go” at the American Dream has become nearly impossible. It should be a prime concern for any city leaders who want Pittsburgh to thrive.

Costa moved back to his hometown. With help from family and friends, he started his business in 2010. For two years he sold his specialty cured meat at the public market in the Strip District. But he and his business partner, his older brother, always knew they wanted to find a space to sell wholesale. They decided on Beechview, an area of town in need of revitalization, and it worked. As Pittsburgh Magazine put it, his market/restaurant was “a showcase for small-batch, housemade products — sausages, pâtés, prosciuttos and more — served with high-quality accompaniments.”

All the while, Costa was working toward obtaining a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which was granted in 2013. “Before then, business was steady but my partner (was having) to front (the money) to pay monthly bills,” Costa said.

A USDA license isn't required to operate, he said, but it is necessary “if you want to ship out of state ... and (that) was what enabled us to be financially viable.” And viable they were, contracting with clients across the country, from Brooklyn to Austin, to sell Crested Duck products at high-end food purveyors and markets.

All the time Costa was making his cured meats, he was inspected locally by a team of six different people. Yet, when his federal license came through — “a great day that was short-lived,” he says — he was immediately faced with an extensive and invasive food safety inspection.

For two weeks a bureaucrat from Washington sat in his facility and poured through all his records. The inspector never had dealt with charcuterie before and is legally handcuffed from disclosing what he needs to approve the safety plan (even if he felt like it).

Costa said it was totally different than working with the local USDA inspectors with whom he had developed good relations. When Costa learned the inspector was going to reject his application, he withdrew it. He can reapply anytime within the next two years.

“I'm no martyr,” Costa says. But he is justifiably angry. “My process was approved by six different people (and) I worked with (a) professor at Penn State (who is) an expert on food safety and microbiology,” Costa said.

“I do think I was understaffed and (my) paperwork didn't look the way it should have,” he conceded. But “we struggled to make this work for two years and over two weeks it was all taken down.”

Abby Schachter, a Pittsburgh writer, is editor of CapX America.

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