The Cottage Food Bill Clears First Hurdle in California

May 18, 2012

The recently passed California Cottage Food Bill comes with controversy.

On April 17, 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.

This bill comes with controversy.

Christina Oatfield, food policy director for the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), the nonprofit 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.
Some contend that if a food producer cannot afford these hourly rates, it is likely that the project is underfunded anyway and may not be able to survive.

If the bill makes it all the way through the state Senate and is eventually signed into law by Gov. Brown, 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. All good requirements.

"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," Oatfield says. "I think government regulation really needs to be scale-appropriate."

I believe that all food companies, large and tiny, have a food safety responsibility and every food processing facility should be inspected -- what do you think?