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New Laws Open The Market for Homemade Foods

Want to sell Grandma's toffee or Uncle Joe's famous BBQ sauce? The cottage food movement creates new opportunities for very very small-scale food makers.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Stephanie Richard

 

Since the homemade food renaissance has taken root, there's been no shortage of home picklers, jammers, and bakers. But in some states, it's a misdemeanor for those home artisans to sell their goodies in the open marketplace. Case in point: Last June, Department of Public Health officials in California shut down  ForageSF's popular Underground Market, which featured mostly home producers, because its sellers were not compliant with local and state regulations.

But due to a campaign launched by  the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), the laws might change this year. The Oakland-based SELC recently teamed up with Los Angeles Assemblymember Mike Gatto to introduce the  California Homemade Food Act (AB 1616), a "cottage food" bill that would legalize the sale of certain foods produced in home kitchens.

"There are a lot of hoops to get a food business started. That's what prompted the cottage food law campaign," says SELC research associate and campaign coordinator Christina Oatfield. Founded in 2010 by attorneys Janelle Orsi and Jenny Kassan, the SELC provides legal research and assistance to foster local and sustainable economies and business ventures.

Currently, California state law requires that any foods produced for sale be prepared in a certified kitchen or food facility using commercial-grade equipment that is inspected by the health department. For many startups, this means renting a commercial kitchen space, which costs upwards of $25 per hour or $1,500 per month—a large expenditure, particularly for hobby food producers who just want to make a bit of supplemental income. Additionally, shared kitchens are often not a practical option for producers who make specialty items such as gluten-free baked goods.

For entrepreneurs who want to open their own kitchen, the investment and risks are greater. In addition to the costs of buying or renting a brick-and-mortar space and furnishing it with commercial-grade equipment (often several times the cost of home kitchen appliances), there are other fixed expenditures, such as insurance and health department inspections. "It can easily exceed $100,000 with equipment and infrastructure work," says Oatfield. "That's a huge barrier to a startup entrepreneur, especially in these tough economic times."

A Growing Movement 

To date, more than 30 states have cottage food laws on the books, many of which have been passed in the last couple of years. Oatfield sees this trend as a response to both the economic downturn of 2008 and the surge of interest in local food over the last few years. "There's a growing awareness among consumers about food systems issues and enthusiasm for buying local and knowing the person who made your food," she says.

Cottage food law advocates argue that loosening the regulations for small, home-based businesses fosters growth in the local economy, while giving startups the opportunity to test their products, establish a customer base, and incubate their business before investing in commercial kitchen space. "Very often laws and regulations are written to keep large corporations in check, and they're not scale-appropriate for small, community-based businesses or other informal activities," says Oatfield.

For consumers and public health officials, the safety of foods produced in home kitchens has been the greatest concern, so many cottage food laws limit the products that can be sold. Under the California Homemade Food Act, cottage food operations would be allowed to prepare and sell "nonpotentially hazardous" items such as dry-storage baked goods, jams, preserves, nut mixes, dried fruit, roasted coffees, honey, pickles with a pH level of 4.6 or below, and other items with low risk for supporting toxic microorganisms.

The proposed bill also states that home producers must register their business and follow the same sanitation, packaging, and labeling procedures that are expected of commercial kitchens, though it does not require inspections unless complaints are made. While such details may be revised in the legislative process, the SELC is working closely with the state public health department to ensure that health measures are followed while keeping the entrepreneur's costs as low as possible.

 
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