FTCLDF member Ric Brewer, owner at Little Gray Farms Escargots, had a potentially profitable niche business lined up—selling snails to restaurants—but USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service created obstacles for Brewer that have made him unable to even get his business started. Here is his story.
On my way into my office job, I often pass a local community garden. In midsummer the array of vegetables and fruit it showcases is dizzying. Today a large hand-painted sign was posted at its edge with the words “Free Food—Just Pick Up!” spray painted on it.
Free food, laying there for anyone to gather and feed themselves, their friends and their families. For millennia, this is similar to how humans sustained themselves, picking edibles up where we found them.
But imagine if gathering food were against the law. Imagine that the government—your government—told you that you could be fined or even jailed if you gathered food that was quite literally lying around.
This isn’t as imaginary as you might think. Because this is exactly what is happening with my business. I grow snails.
Yes, snails. While a foreign dish for many Americans, snails, or more exotically put, escargots, have sustained humans for thousands of years. They are a healthy animal protein, low on the food chain, and can be sustainably farmed as well as foraged.
I began raising escargots about four years ago after decades of thinking about the idea. Through research I discovered there were no viable American escargot farms. I also spoke with many chefs who stated that, if there were local sources for fresh escargots, they would be more likely to cook with them instead of the canned tins of slimy, rubbery escargots that too many Americans think of when they envision this dish.
In fact, about 99% of the escargots eaten in this country are imported. They come from everywhere: Europe, Indonesia, North Africa and increasingly, Eastern European countries like Poland where heliciculture—the raising of snails for food—has increased by more than 300% over the past several years. Heliciculture has peaceably existed side-by-side with traditional agriculture for thousands of years in Europe with no adverse effects.
So what’s our problem here? Why haven’t Americans, with their locavore movement, organic predilection and low carbon footprint-loving mantra embraced heliciculture? A good deal of the blame goes to USDA and its sub-division, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
I readily admit that Cornu aspersum, the snail species I raise, is an alien to our shores. Originally a southern European species, Romans brought along the delicacy as they plundered northward. And like the Romans, new Americans also brought the snail with them to their new homeland, with firm documentation of their existence here since at least 1850, if not sooner. As an extremely adaptive creature, these snails spread throughout the continent and many people don’t realize that those snails in their gardens could now be considered just as “American” as they are.
But APHIS still considers them alien invaders. Cornu aspersum do eat plants and, like us, they think there is nothing better than chowing down on some tender new baby lettuces or fresh strawberries. Because of this, they are considered plant pests and any human-induced transit of snails is regulated by the auspices of APHIS. Considerable fines and even threatened jail time awaits anyone who knowingly—and especially if it’s for the sake of making profit—transports a live Cornu aspersum or its eggs across state lines.
This is where I enter the picture. After locally gathering and breeding the Cornu aspersum already living in my home state of Washington, where they are extremely common, I found the demand by area chefs overwhelming and my supplies of market-ready snails dwindling. They are slow to grow (no pun intended) and my efforts to create a viable business seemed dim if I couldn’t increase volume. Until one day I received a phone call.
An organic orchardist in another state had read about my farm. We talked at length and he said that in his orchard existed thousands, if not millions, of snails. After an email photo exchange, I was able to determine that his snails were, sure enough, Cornu aspersum. He was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars spreading poison to kill these plentiful invaders. He stated that while they were pesky and did cause some damage, they hardly constituted an invading hoard as APHIS characterized them. Why not, the orchardist proposed, come down and gather his snails which would negate his need to dispense poison on his trees and thereby supply me with the necessary “stock” I needed to replenish my herd? Brilliant solution that worked for everyone, right?
Well, no. As previously mentioned, as a designated plant pest, APHIS controlled the movement of these snails. But one could apply for a permit to transport them from one state to another. After a convoluted permit process (one must apply for permission just to apply for the permit then go through a Homeland Security check), I applied. And was denied. The permits are mostly designed for labs and research facilities to obtain animals for experiments. To be granted a permit, one must have an APHIS-approved quarantine facility, basically an airtight box that guarantees no escape into the environment.
Ok. A minor setback, but not insurmountable. And essentially, even though this exact same species of snails is prevalent in this state, though not in the concentrated numbers as the out-of-state orchards, I could live with the idea and practice of quarantine.
With the help of an investor, I leased a warehouse space. The containment regulations were, while not relaxed, free of details that would steer one toward guaranteed approval. Since escargots must be cooked, de-shelled and vacuum sealed, it would require me to remove them from quarantine and take them to the commercial kitchen I used to process. But no worries: there was even a proviso in the regulations that allowed for offsite transport, and I received written permission from the Washington State Department of Agriculture to have a snail farm. So everything was moving forward, slowly.
And then the brick wall sprung up.
No, I was told by APHIS. This was incorrect. Once in quarantine, the snails must remain there indefinitely. An entire lifecycle in a “box.” Any “deactivation” (their word, not mine) must take place in that approved space or if transport must occur, the offsite location must also be an APHIS-approved quarantine facility. What does this mean in laymen’s terms? Basically this: If you transport snails from out of state, they must grow in an alarm-secured building and be killed and processed in that same building, so any growing facility must have its own onsite processing facility. Like a cartoon, I heard a cash register ring in my head as I imagined the cost of a large warehouse with its own dedicated commercial kitchen. And if they were to go to an offsite facility, which I’d need permission every time they moved, the commercial kitchen would have to be an approved APHIS quarantine facility as well. Several calls to commercial kitchens revealed that there was no such thing as a quarantine kitchen. And what’s more, none of them would even dream of allowing APHIS to darken their doorstep for an inspection.
I was seeing my dream wither like a snail in the sun. The idea of financing and building a facility based on the prospect that APHIS might approve it was not only expensive, it was foolhardy. They were clever, I will give them that: write a regulation so it appears that they’ll allow this type of endeavor. But write it so that as a small farmer, it would be nearly impossible to build due to the imposing financial outlay it would require. And investors I approached balked at providing funding on the off-chance that a federal agency would be amenable to changing a regulation.
On my phone conferences and emails with APHIS, I often left feeling I’d been on an amusement park Tilt-A-Whirl. Conversations were circuitous, full of quick turns, and questions lay unanswered or worse, answered with bureaucratic obfuscation.
I did feel for the APHIS folks. I really did. They were handed down regulations they must follow to the letter (or at least the letter as how they interpreted it), all supposedly in the name of agricultural safety, though I’d never found research indicating the extreme devastating impacts that these snails had ever demonstrated. I tried to pry: Who made the laws? How was the level of threat of these snails determined? How were the outrageous fines decided? But it all essentially came back to a shrugged, “That’s the way it is and there’s nothing we can do about it.” One official did allude to their rational human side: they admitted that these regulations were paid for by big agricultural associations and, due to inadequate funding for inspections, it was easier to create difficult-to-attain standards and, in some cases, outright prohibitions than it was to selectively apply the regulations in areas where any potential impact was negligible.
Supposedly the process is achievable. Just a few weeks ago I discovered that a couple of gentlemen who’d been trying to start a snail farm back East had succeeded in getting their facility approved by APHIS as a quarantine facility. Great! But when I contacted APHIS to obtain details about how this had been accomplished (how the heck were they processing snails in a facility I knew didn’t have a kitchen inside it?), I was stonewalled. This is confidential information, I was told. I had to get written permission from the permit holders to gain it. So off went an email to them. Just a few questions and an olive branch to say it would be great to work collectively since we weren’t really competitors. But it went unanswered. As did follow-up emails. But in the meantime, APHIS pulled a sneaky act: they re-wrote the containment guidelines, removing the proviso to allow for offsite processing and adding five additional pages of rules. When contacted about the extensive changes—without any required public comment period—I was informed these were only “clarifications” and so public comment wasn’t necessary or invited. Rules made in a black box.
At this point I would say my business is a “successful failure.” What I do have is a lot of positive media play, a local base of happy restaurant customers, and tons of emails and calls from people interested in snails and starting their own farms. I’ve also met dozens of interesting, smart people who wonder why we can’t have regulations that are innovative and promote small farmers and new, sustainable food options.
What I don’t have are tons of snails. And the freedom to walk outside, find healthy food literally at my feet, and safely and responsibly make it available to those who desire to make a difference.
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