The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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The Cottage Food Bill Clears First Hurdle in California

The Cottage Food Bill Clears First Hurdle in California

In the News

April 29, 2012

On April 17, 2012, the California Homemade Food Act (AB 1616) – more commonly known as the California Cottage Food Bill – passed the California Assembly Committee on Health, bringing small food operators in California one step closer to being able to legally provide their communities with healthy, home-grown food products.

“Cottage foods” are foods that are made in someone’s home kitchen and sold on a small scale, typically directly to consumers and at farmer’s markets. Cottage food laws typically allow only foods that are classified as “non-potentially hazardous foods” in state and federal laws – meaning that they are not conducive to the growth of harmful bacteria or other toxic micro-organisms. Those items can include baked goods (with no cream, custard or meat fillings), jams and jellies, granola, popcorn, nut mixes, roasted coffee, herb blends, candy, honey, dried fruit and dried pasta. 

Christina Oatfield, Food Policy Director for the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), the non-profit that helped push the California bill forward, says the main issue small food producers are grappling with – and one of the reasons why this bill is so important – is that commercial kitchens are extremely expensive to rent, lease or own. In urban areas they can cost anywhere from $30 to $70 per hour to rent and in rural areas they are very sparse. This makes starting a small food business very cost prohibitive, especially in this economy.

“For small batches, home appliances and equipment work just fine and most people already own most of what they logistically need to make their product. The California Homemade Food Act would give aspiring food entrepreneurs the ability to generate income from their home kitchen. For those that are especially successful, this would act as a vital preliminary stage for food entrepreneurs before they upgrade to a commercial kitchen, after they develop their product, a customer base and the experience and confidence they need to move from a home kitchen to a commercial kitchen,” says Oatfield.

The Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) first heard about cottage food laws in other states and started researching them over a year ago. Late last summer they teamed up with Mark Stambler, co-founder of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, who was eager to work on advocating for a cottage food law in California. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) contacted Stambler after a series of news stories came out about Stambler baking bread in his backyard brick oven, selling it to a few local shops and then getting busted by the county health department. Gatto introduced the bill in February. The final vote on April 17, 2012 was 15-0 in support of the bill.

If the bill makes it all the way through the state Senate and is eventually signed into law by the Governor, cottage food producers will be required to take a food safety class and pass an exam (the same that is required for employees of commercial kitchens) in order to operate their food business, empowering them with the information they need to handle food safely. Products will also need to have a label, as the Health Department will define in further detail, that includes a list of ingredients, the location where the product was made and any allergy information. There may be some required statement that says the product is homemade too. 

Additionally, the law calls for certain practices for safe handling of food (such as sanitizing utensils, washing countertops, not keeping food on the floor, and so on) to be followed – similar to the food safety practices required in commercial kitchens. With all these requirements, the risk of food made in a cottage food kitchen making someone sick is extremely low and overall, not much different than the risk of producing similar foods in a licensed commercial kitchen, says Oatfield. 

“Advocates of this bill believe that it's not necessary for a health inspector to take the time to inspect a home kitchen making cookies for a bake sale or making jam to sell to friends and neighbors. On the other end of the spectrum, a facility that is processing food to be distributed all over the country should have some very substantial oversight by the health department including inspections, training and other safety requirements,” she says. “I think government regulation really needs to be scale-appropriate.”

Oatfield says that it’s hard to know how many new food businesses will develop as a result of this law, but there are numerous businesses currently operating from home kitchens thanks to growing demand from consumers for locally and sustainably produced products. The goal of some of those food processors is to gradually move up into a commercial kitchen, while the goal of some others is just to make their hobby become revenue neutral. Either way, being able to sell homemade value added products can act a significant revenue generator for some small businesses, reduce financial losses from unsold fruits and vegetables, and minimize food waste.

“This bill is really a big win for small farmers,” says Oatfield.

Click here to learn more about Cottage Food Laws in other states.