The heritage pig breeding operation run by a well-known Madison chef has come under state scrutiny, with a state agency confiscating pork products from local restaurants.
Dan Fox, who opened the highly anticipated Heritage Tavern, 131 E. Mifflin St., in September, also owns Fox Heritage Foods, for which he raises rare breeds of pigs that graze and feed sustainably.
Heritage pork is darker, fattier and more tender than the commercially raised variety and sought by higher-end restaurants.
An investigator from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection visited a number of Madison restaurants last week looking for Fox’s pork products, and in some cases taking them, restaurant owners said.
Calls to Matt Kaesermann from DATCP’s division of food safety, who made at least some of the visits, were not returned.
All DATCP spokesman James Dick would say is that the agency has “an open investigation,” adding, “there won’t be any comment on the investigation that is going on.”
Dick couldn’t provide information Wednesday on what licenses Fox Heritage Foods holds.
Fox wouldn’t confirm what the investigation is about, only that he is trying to operate his pork business properly and move on. “(I’m) super excited to continue to launch that side of my business as successfully as possible,” he said.
Tory Miller, the James Beard Award-winning chef and co-owner of Downtown restaurants L’Etoile and Graze, said an agent from DATCP came by last week to make sure he didn’t have any unlicensed pork in the building.
Miller said he bought a half a pig from Fox in August but hasn’t been using a steady supply of Fox’s product.
“I think in Dan’s mind he was just kind of raising the hogs right, killing them right, and then selling them off to people that he knows would like well-raised pork,” he said. “I know that Dan is trying to do the right thing ... but you’ve got to follow the rules, I guess.”
Miller said his understanding is that Fox has his pigs slaughtered at a licensed facility.
The bigger issue, he said, is that those who raise animals for meat also have to have it packaged in a licensed facility and “have a license to distribute whole or half animals.”
When Miller orders a half a pig, Fox “wraps it up and brings it over. And I don’t think to look for a label or anything like that, you know, because it just usually doesn’t happen that way.”
Miller said Fox was apologetic and told him that if he had to throw any pork away he’d replace it.
“Lucky for us we didn’t obviously have a ton of product on hand,” Miller said. “It was not on our menu.”
Osteria Papavero chef/owner Francesco Mangano said when the DATCP inspector stopped by his Downtown restaurant last week, all he had from Fox Heritage was a little bit of fatback that the agent confiscated.
Mangano said it amounted to about 8 pounds. “It really was a silly amount of money.”
He said he didn’t know the exact reason for the raid, but was told Fox had some problems with licensing.
“There are different licenses for slaughtering, and ones for selling,” Mangano said. “I guess some of the licenses that Heritage (was using) were not the correct ones and so they were not able to, at least for now, to deliver more pigs.
“It’s more complicated than I even know enough about.”
Mangano said he hopes to buy from Fox again in the near future after the problem is sorted out.
Dan Bonanno, the chef/co-owner of A Pig in a Fur Coat on Williamson Street, said he was visited by DATCP but didn’t have any of Fox’s pork on hand.
Bonanno said the agent was reluctant to tell him what the issue was. “I don’t know if he couldn’t, but he didn’t,” Bonanno said.
Sometimes he buys from Fox, but usually he procures his pork from other local sources, he said.
Matt Van Nest, who owns Brasserie V on Monroe Street, said the investigator was nice but direct, asking questions like, “When did you meet Dan?”
Brasserie V buys from about 25 different farmers and Van Nest said he just assumes they all have the proper licenses because they sell at farmers’ markets. But the agent implied that in the future he should ask to see the paperwork.
Van Nest said the agent told him the meat is safe to eat, but Fox doesn’t have a license to wholesale his pork.
The agent put a “stamp,” or hold on the restaurant’s Fox Heritage pork loin and shoulder, preventing them from selling it, but didn’t confiscate it, said Brasserie V chef Rob Grisham.
Fox wouldn’t give the reason for the investigation.
“It’s nothing more than us trying to work through a few interpersonal things and trying to move forward in a very positive, holistic manner,” he said.
He wouldn’t say whether DATCP had an issue with distribution or licensing but said authorities had not shut down his pig farm.
“Nothing negative has come from it,” Fox said. “The issue (is) just mainly centered around making sure that we are continuing to move forward on the right track and they are helping us get there.”
Miller of L’Etoile said that Fox was trying to do the right thing.
“But along those lines, you still have to follow the rules that they lay down,” Miller said. “That’s why for me, I’m just a cook. I’m not trying to (be) a farmer and a cook. Too many rules. There’s already enough rules for me to follow.”