On a busy autumn weekend, Maple Ridge Orchard can sell as much as 100 gallons of apple cider, which is made on site using a stainless steel hydropress that sits in an open-air shelter.
Like many Wisconsin cider presses, Maple Ridge’s press had been exempt from state regulations for years, but Lisa Rodriguez, who owns the Cashton orchard with her husband Domingo, said state inspectors now say the device must be enclosed in order to meet retail food-establishment license requirements — all because the orchard sells other fall staples such as baked goods and caramel apples.
Commercial-grade kitchen upgrades could cost tens of thousands of dollars, something the 10-acre orchard cannot afford, Rodriguez said.
“We would probably just quit,” she said. “It would be sad, but do you have an extra 40 grand?”
Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection inspectors say the upgrades are necessary to maintain public health standards. Meanwhile, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit that litigates to limit the size of government power, argues that Maple Ridge’s press is nowhere near the orchard’s other food operations and should remain exempt.
“Even though cider-making is unregulated, the fact that the farm is doing regulated activity elsewhere on the farm … means that everything they do on their farm is suddenly regulated,” institute attorney Erica Smith said. “If the only thing they were doing was making cider, DATCP would have zero authority over them.”
Wisconsin statute notes a retail food establishment that sells items such as fresh fruit, vegetables, honey, cider or maple syrup can operate without a retail license “if no other food processing activities are conducted at that retail food establishment.”
Rodriguez said the orchard has been selling food products for several years.
Last September, DATCP inspectors notified orchard owners they needed to apply for a retail food establishment license to make and sell baked goods and caramel apples.
During the retail food establishment inspection this August, the Rodríguezes were told they needed to enclose the cider press in order to secure a license, according to an Aug. 28 inspection report.
Steve Ingham, administrator of DATCP’s Division of Food and Recreational Safety, said license requirements are intended to prevent the sale of adulterated or misbranded food and that enclosed processing helps prevent contamination of the apples. He added that apple cider has been known to be involved in cases of outbreaks caused by bacteria or parasites.
“Airborne contaminants, while not necessarily containing pathogens, should be prevented from contacting food,” Ingham said in an email. “It is generally easier to control the processing environment indoors than outdoors.”
Following the inspection, Maple Ridge was granted a 90-day conditional retail food license to continue operations through the end of November, which would get them through the season. The conditional license notes they must meet with DATCP officials to discuss how they intend to meet license requirements. A meeting is planned for next month.
Smith argued inspectors have misinterpreted the statute, and the press shouldn’t fall under the same requirements as the orchard’s kitchen, as the two are more than 100 feet apart.
“It just seems like a situation where you have government officials taking this extremely strict interpretation of its rule, just for the sake of it, not to actually protect anybody, and in the process they’re crushing this small business,” Smith said.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules still apply to an exempt cider operation. The FDA requires that cider include a warning label if it has not been pasteurized and therefore could contain bacteria. Rodriguez said Maple Ridge has always complied with federal rules.
A DATCP spokesman added that there are no customer complaints on file for the orchard.
“We’re not trying to make a bad guy out of anybody. We don’t have a gripe with the inspectors because I understand they’re just doing their job,” Rodriguez said. “We just want to pick, pack and sell our fruit quietly, sell and press our cider and baked goods and caramel apples.”
Ingham said DATCP officials plan to meet with the Rodríguezes and come to a commonsense conclusion.
“The intent is to talk openly and constructively at the meeting in November and come to a solution,” he said. “Our goal is not to put people out of business, our goal is not to punish people. We want people to comply and products to be safe.”
This isn’t the first time Wisconsin government has clashed with small, rural business owners.
Last year, former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel threw the future of wedding barns into question when he issued an informal opinion saying private events held in public spaces need liquor licenses. State law prohibits owners of public places from allowing alcohol without a license, but the statutes don’t define a public place.
While not binding, the opinion caused concern among some farmers who rent out their barns for weddings. Earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he would not require wedding barns to get liquor licenses.
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