|MARCH 13, 2010 --
Anita F. Kopchinski, co-owner of 10-acre Hidden Brook Gardens in Ledyard, says she makes "one mean hot pepper jelly," but she can't share the culinary experience with customers because of state restrictions.
So Kopchinski testified last week before a legislative panel in favor of the so-called "Pickle Bill" that would allow owners of small family farms to sell acidified food products such as salsas and tomato sauces made in their private kitchens. State law allows the sale of such products only by those with commercial kitchens.
"The sale of these products is especially beneficial during the winter farm market season when fresh produce is limited," Kopchinski told members of the Joint Committee on Public Health.
"Connecticut residents want these types of food products," she added in a statement issued through the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association. "They want to know where their food is coming from. They want locally made foods prepared by local people."
Kopchinski, a former Pfizer Inc. chemist, added that a requirement for a commercial kitchen, which can cost upwards of $35,000 to build and equip, is a "high barrier to entry" for owners of small farms, many of whom are struggling in the current economy.
The friendly-sounding "Pickle Bill" (HB-5287), which passed the House last year almost unanimously but failed in the Senate because of lack of action, nonetheless has its detractors, not the least of which are the state Department of Public Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Frank Greene, director of the Food & Standards division of the state Department of Consumer Protection, held out the possibility of "increased cases of sickness and even death of the consuming public" if the bill is passed.
While Greene felt that a previous exemption allowing family farms to sell jams and jellies did not pose a significant health risk, he said in testimony that vegetable products and the acidification process "have been shown to be repeatedly implicated in cases of botulism," which he described as "a horrible disease which when untreated has a high mortality rate."
But Kopchinski, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and has been farming for four years, said she believes the Pickle Bill, known officially as an Act Allowing the Production and Sale of Acidified Food Products on Residential Farms, offers plenty of protections for consumers. The bill requires farmers to have their kitchens' water supplies checked annually, restricts access to the food-preparation area, mandates that recipes are tested for safety at independent labs and ensures that workers complete a safe food handling class.
"You have to show you are not going at this willy-nilly," she said in a phone interview.
Steven Reviczky, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association, said the Pickle Bill is modeled after similar legislation in Pennsylvania that restricts farmers to selling acidified food products with a pH value of 4.6 or less.
"This means items such as pickles and chow-chow (a pickled vegetable mix) could be sold at farm stands and at farmers markets across the state in the same way farmers can make and sell jellies and jams," he said in a statement.
Reviczky, who said state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, is one of the bill's major proponents, also pointed out that the measure bars farmers from selling any product containing milk, eggs, meat, poultry or fish.
Despite the restrictions, Kopchinski said she believes the Pickle Bill could do a lot to perk up her farm's sales. She estimated that she could easily double the percentage of her business devoted to so-called "value-added products," which account for only 7 percent of her income.
What's more, her ability to use less-than-perfect-looking vegetables in these products would mean less waste, said Kopchinski, who sells fruits, vegetables, herbs and plants at her farm while managing a nearby apple orchard. Her value-added products include jams, jellies and apple cider.
"People like to buy from a local person," she said. "It would be a big economic boon to us."