Earl Peck opened his exotic foods distribution business in 1993. Little did he know that what began as a promising entrepreneurial venture would turn into a regulatory nightmare that has yet to end.
Peck, a native of Connecticut, moved to Rocky Mount, North Carolina to look after his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. He soon discovered it was difficult to find the Italian sausages and other favorite foods he was used to getting in Connecticut. That gave him the idea to start his own mail-order food business out of his mother’s home.
His business, International Home Cooking, was a great success. Sales reached $100,000 by 1995. Peck prided himself on filling a wide variety of orders from restaurants all over the country, as well as from individuals seeking exotic meats. He sold alligator, rattlesnake, emu, lion, and even camel meat. Everything was perfectly legal.
Peck registered his business with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Office, who told him all he needed was an inspection by the county health department, which he dutifully obtained. All the meat he sold was purchased from established suppliers and certified as inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the state. He advertised his business openly in newspapers, and even sent a flier to the White House chef.
Then one day in November 1995, he sold some black bear meat to a man claiming to be a contractor. Peck had sold several pounds of bear meat to the gentleman before and had no reason to believe there was a problem. But this time, after he accepted payment from the man, cars swarmed into the parking lot and a half-dozen men jumped out. Peck was surrounded, thrown against a car, and frisked. He thought he was being robbed.
As it turns out, the men–including his alleged customer–were United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agents investigating him for allegedly selling bear meat illegally. They drove to Peck’s home and spent four hours ransacking his house, seizing business files and downloading documents from his computer. He was told that his offense carried a penalty of $20,000 and/or five years in prison.
Peck doesn’t understand what law he could have broken. He purchased the bear meat from a legitimate South Dakota supplier, and it was USDA-inspected.
Even the state of North Carolina appears confused as to whether he broke a law. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission points to a state law that forbids the sale of bear and deer meat–although that law was ostensibly aimed to stop poaching of bear and deer native to the state. On the other hand, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, which inspects meat, found nothing illegal in Peck’s business.
In May 1996, the U.S. Attorney’s office sent Peck a letter saying he wouldn’t be prosecuted due to “insufficient federal interest.” But that withdrawal came too late to save Peck’s business. He was forced to shut down after the 1995 raid; his continued inability to get a definitive answer from state officials over what he can sell prohibits him from starting up again. “When they take USDA meat, I’m afraid to replace it with anything,” Peck said.
While many restaurants sell the same meats Peck was selling, the state and federal agencies who put him out of business appear to have little interest in pursuing others.
North Carolina State Representative Gene Arnold, who represents Rocky Mount, says he believes Peck has grounds for a civil suit. “This is a complete abuse of power,” Arnold said. “It looks like they made a big mistake.”
John K. Carlisle is director of the Environmental Policy Task Force at The National Center for Public Policy Research. He can be reached at [email protected].