In Texas, it is illegal to sell food prepared in your home kitchen. The cakes at the church or elementary school bake sale? The homemade lemonade your 6-year-old neighbor sells from his front yard? Yes — these are technically illegal. All food offered for sale must be prepared in a certified commercial kitchen.
This is generally a good law. It’s designed to protect consumers from producers who might otherwise cut corners when it comes to cleanliness and safe handling practices. A certified commercial kitchen is subject to unannounced inspections by health officials and must be kept clean. It also must have certain equipment, such as separate sinks designated for meat, vegetables and hand washing.
These requirements were written to accommodate large food processing operations that ship their goods to stores, restaurants and other processing plants around the country. They had to be. But they are not scaled for new, small-scale producers working with low-risk foods. A home kitchen cannot be certified as a commercial kitchen, and a commercial kitchen can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars to build. If a home baker wants to try selling cakes and cookies to her friends and neighbors just to see whether there is a market for them, she has no legal, financially feasible way to do so.
As evidenced by the proliferation of charity bake sales, the commercial kitchen requirement is not always enforced. But sometimes it is — and for someone trying to run a long-term business, operating under-the-table is usually not the wisest or the safest choice.
Texas H.B. 1139, the Cottage Foods Bill, would give home food producers a legal way to get started. It exempts some small-scale producers, known as “cottage foods producers,” from the commercial kitchen requirement. To qualify, producers have to have a gross annual sales of less than $150,000 and sell their products directly to consumers. The bill only covers foods that the FDA considers low-risk for food-borne illness, such as baked goods, jams, vinegars and dried herbs.
It also requires producers of cottage foods to obtain a cottage food production operation permit and to take a state-accredited course on basic food safety. The food would need a label that included ingredients, the address of the home kitchen and the following statement: “Made in a home kitchen that is not routinely inspected by a state or local health authority.”
Food safety is important, but the producers covered by this bill can produce food safely without the financial burden of a commercial kitchen. We need regulations because our industrialized food system makes it impossible for consumers to personally evaluate the food safety practices of every factory that produces every product at the grocery store. But when they are buying from a friend, a neighbor or an acquaintance at a farmers market, they can talk to the producers and make those decisions. The transparency of a direct producer-to-consumer relationship provides a much stronger check on a producer’s practices than any government regulation could.
Because cottage foods will be clearly labeled, anyone who is uncomfortable buying food not prepared in a commercial kitchen can choose not to. People with severe food allergies, for example, know not to eat food from buffets or food prepared by friends and neighbors, and they will know not to buy cottage foods.
Many of us graduating this year, next year or even the year after that are worried about how to find a job in this stagnant economy. Young, creative people unsatisfied with their corporate job prospects often make the best entrepreneurs, but the start-up costs of getting a small business off the ground can be prohibitive. This bill would make it possible for students and recent graduates to enter the growing artisanal foods market. By the time cottage foods producers get big enough that they need a commercial kitchen, they will know that it is a worthy investment. Cottage food operations can stimulate local economies. And when cottage producers scale up, they will start providing jobs.
Twenty-five states have laws similar to H.B. 1139, and several others are considering them. Texas legislators, faced with a mind-boggling budget deficit, have a lot of difficult decisions to make this session. The Cottage Foods Bill, which requires no state spending, will stimulate the local economy and could help provide jobs, should be an easy one. Call your state representative and ask him or her to support H.B. 1139.
<em>Clabby is an English senior.<em>