Selling Homemade Food: Laws and Considerations

Legally and Safely Profiting from Your Best Canned Food and Other Homemade Goods

selling-homemade-food

Photo by Shelley DeDauw

Cottage food law is the legal permission or ban on selling homemade food. And it’s gotten a lot of attention lately. Within the past few years, states have either tightened or loosened their laws concerning who can sell their breads, pickles, and jellies; and the ways they can go about doing it.

Fundraisers and farmers markets abound. Talented people with little funding consider small craft business ideas to bring in extra money. Items such as potholders, crocheted baby afghans, paintings and jewelry beckon from portable tables. But the booths selling homemade food draw the most attention. Customers return often to purchase bread from a homemaker who stayed up until 3 a.m. the night before.

Home cooks develop incredible recipes. Friends claim they should sell their products, but the cooks have small children, other jobs, or lack the funds to pay for licensing and commercial kitchens. Some don’t want to run large operations or leave children with babysitters. They just want enough money to help with the bills.

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Making and selling homemade food used to be easy. Roadside stands even offered freshly made pies and pastries. But laws tightened up, either outlawing the sale of home-crafted food completely, mandating that it come from a commercial kitchen, or restricting it to nonprofit fundraisers. Thankfully, laws have recently loosened. If you plan on selling homemade food, it’s important to know why the laws exist and what they mean for your specific area and kitchen.

Heartaches and Good Intentions

Just before Lent, in 2009, St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Pennsylvania held a fish-fry fundraiser. Pie slices sold for $1 apiece: Mary Pratte’s famous coconut cream pie, Louise Humbert’s raisin pie, and Marge Murtha’s “farm apple” pie. Then a state health inspector came in and declared the pies could not be sold. Everyone was devastated. These fish fries were a highly anticipated tradition. According to the inspector, the pies would be fine if they had come from the church’s kitchen because that establishment had been inspected. But the bakers were all elderly and some were disabled. Making it to the church kitchen to prepare enough for the fish fry would be impossible. All the bakers had donated materials and time for a good cause, to be turned down because they didn’t have inspected appliances.

When other parishes heard the news, they circulated the instruction: “Don’t tell anyone.” Fish fries provided revenue to fix leaky roofs and subsidize tuition for parochial schools. They depended on their baked goods for cafeterias to keep costs down.

Many claimed that the ladies’ kitchens were probably cleaner than most commercial operations. Others felt it was unfair to make Grandma’s pies illegal. The incident became known as “Pie Gate” and it sparked new considerations regarding Pennsylvania’s cottage food laws. Around that time, other states reconsidered laws that banned selling homemade food.

Definition of Cottage Food Law

Cottage food is the bread, pickles, candy, syrups, and other delicious items homesteaders can craft in their kitchens. The “cottage” part denotes that it comes from an individual or family whose operation is too small to afford licensing. Cottage food law defines exactly how they can sell it for profit. The rules apply to low-risk foods, such as jams or baked goods, which carry little risk of botulism or listeria. Foods with higher risks must follow strict licensing procedures.

Why Laws on Selling Homemade Food Exist

Public health is a huge concern. Regional departments conduct surprise inspections within restaurants to avoid poisoning unassuming customers. They control what type of appliances can cook the food, specific times and temperatures, and overall cleanliness of kitchens, bathrooms, and dining areas. Food created within home kitchens has no such supervision. And as cooks familiar with food preservation methods know, tragedy can strike from mistakes as simple as not adding acid to tomatoes. Acidic foods preserved in the best canning jars may be fine while those improperly bottled can cause illness.

If local health codes apply to all kitchens, cooks selling homemade food have no chance. Inspections and food handlers’ licenses would take all the money that selling homemade food would even generate.

But there’s a line of mercy within the legal system. Cottage food laws give small producers a chance. They don’t give freedom to sell all types of homemade food, and cooks can only sell at certain venues. But the laws make it possible to sell something.

What Can You Sell and Where

Selling homemade food is not legal everywhere. New Jersey completely bans it completely, but the legislature has been trying to get laws passed for a while. Idaho has no cottage food law so rules vary by health district to allow baked goods, honey, jams, and jellies. Wisconsin only allows sales at events and farmers markets, and it’s one of the few states banning baked goods.

Items sold under cottage food laws are exempt from local licensing and codes. Because of this, only certain sales are legal. The best indication of what food is allowed under a cottage food law is safety. Foods susceptible to botulism, such as low-acid vegetables, are outlawed pretty much everywhere. The most acceptable foods include jams and jellies, pickles canned in vinegar, and baked goods. Though that can vary state by state.

Meat is generally not allowed because of widespread health concerns. Most farmers wanting to sell meat to the public must have it USDA-inspected or offer programs where consumers purchase animals and pay for butchering costs. Some foods such as cheeses fall beneath both cottage food laws and state bans on the sale of raw milk, if the cheese has been produced from a farmer’s own dairy animals. Even dairy products made from store-purchased pasteurized milk require special licensing.

Fruits and vegetables grown in a home garden do not require special licensing as long as they have not been cut or altered in any way. Some states allow cooks to include home-grown produce in cottage food but not all do. Still, other states do not allow home-canned products, such as fruits or vegetables, within cottage food.

To check out your cottage food laws, see the Forrager website or look up your state’s individual health code. Forrager and health department sites detail where selling homemade food is allowed and what types of food you may sell. They will also detail the maximum revenue you can make per year. Forrager includes an FAQ page which details how labels must be written, whether foods can be sold across state lines, or whether maximum sales include gross or net profits.

selling-homemade-food

Photo by Shelley DeDauw

How Cottage Food Laws Benefit You

These laws are made for individuals, not businesses, though some states allow for farm operations to open up stores beneath the same regulations. Individuals tend to oversee their products better. E. coli and salmonella within large meat-processing plants proves that the larger an operation becomes, the higher chance for food-borne illness, though those operations are well licensed and inspected. When millions of cookies roll down a conveyor belt per hour, handled by dozens of employees, it’s easy to make mistakes such as unwashed hands or unsanitized counters. Each employee hired increases the risks.

Cottage food laws also protect sales between individuals and strangers. If your best friend purchases from you, she probably already knows the condition of your kitchen. By following labeling rules and listing every ingredient, consumers feel more comfortable purchasing from you. Consumer-to-producer interactions build community relationships. Soon customers return to at-home bakers they trust.

The best places for selling homemade food are farmers markets, farm stands, and places such as craft fairs where consumers purchase directly from whoever cooks the food. Items baked at home generally cannot sell within stores or restaurants unless the home kitchen has been certified. Some states allow the sale of food via the internet, such as candies and jellies. Others allow customers to purchase directly from your home.

Money earned by selling homemade food varies state by state. Wisconsin’s sales cap is $5,000 per year but Virginia has no sales limit and allows distribution within retail stores and restaurants.

Encouraging New Laws

Questions and decisions still exist, even among states that have enacted the laws. How big is too big to fit within a cottage food law? Facilities which hire employees are large enough to pay for additional licensing and commercial kitchens. Income caps ensure that cottage operations indeed need financial leeway. Alternative considerations for in-between kitchens may be fee waivers or discounted commercial space. This brings the larger operations into compliance without harming the very small venues.

The movement for changing cottage food laws has been on the upswing since 2010. Most changes have taken place in the past five years. This means there is hope for states that do not allow selling homemade food.

Addressing your local lawmakers encourages them to change matters for the better. Tell your legislature how most new laws mandate labels specifying that food was made in an unlicensed kitchen. Labels detailing exactly which ingredients compose the food allow consumers to make wise choices at farmer’s markets. Make the claim that larger food operations, such as meat-processing plants, have a much higher rate of food-borne illness because of the increased volume and lack of oversight.

Find stories and information about how these small sales affect nonprofit organizations, school fundraisers, or family farms creating value-added products. St. Cecilia Catholic Church isn’t the only one losing revenue when Grandma’s pies are illegal.

By encouraging and utilizing cottage food laws, small-scale suppliers or homesteaders can generate modest revenue by selling homemade food or donate to fundraisers without legal repercussions.

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