Cook it at Home? A look at Cottage Food Laws

This year, many states have enacted or expanded cottage food laws. While the specific provisions of these laws vary from state to state, the idea behind cottage food laws is to recognize that the costs associated with commercial kitchens can be prohibitive to very small food businesses (cottage food operators), and to allow these businesses to prepare certain foods in home kitchens.

This is great news for food startups, nonprofit fundraisers, and even home cooks who make extra money by selling food. Before cottage food laws, even bake sales could be considered illegal; any food produced for sale to the public had to be produced in a commercial kitchen. For little guys — farm stands, peddlers and fledgling businesses — the volume just doesn’t support the cost of commercial production, so cottage food laws are critical.

However, cottage food laws have limitations. All states specify that only non-potentially hazardous foods can be produced in home kitchens. That is, foods that have a low risk of developing bacteria– i.e. baked goods without fillings, condiments, dry snack foods, and the like — are permitted, but less stable foods, like meats, must still be produced in a commercial kitchen.

Different states define “cottage food operator” in different ways. Some place a cap on how much revenue you can earn. In Michigan, for example, that limit is $20,000. Once your annual revenue exceeds $20,000, you’re no longer a cottage operator. Other states, like New York, don’t limit how much you can sell, but where you can sell it — farmers markets and temporary boutiques are okay, restaurants and retail venues are out.

In addition, many states still require a permit for cottage food production. Depending on where and to whom you sell your product, you may be required to pay a permit fee, take a class or pass a home inspection before a permit is granted. Permits are obtained from your local health department.

Labeling rules apply, too. In California, food produced in a home kitchen must be clearly labeled as such. Mississippi requires that cottage food operators use this less-than-enticing label: “Made in a cottage food operation that is not subject to Mississippi’s food safety regulations.”

For specific rules in your area, visit the web site for the department of public health in your state. California has easy-to-follow guides to their new cottage food laws at http://www.cdph.ca.gov/.  For a great comprehensive overview of cottage food laws by state, as well as updates on states where advocates are working towards making them happen, visit http://www.cottagefoods.org/.