In the last five years or so, there has been a relatively quiet movement taking place in the halls of U.S. state governments. A small but growing minority are being granted special exceptions to long-established laws. This group, in all their spicy, smoked, pickled, baked and otherwise flavor-bursting varieties, are cottage food operations (CFOs), or put more simply, homemade food businesses.
Here in Oregon, a bill passed just a few months ago adding baked goods to the state’s list of allowed foods for sale from unlicensed kitchens. Similar bills have also passed this year in Montana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Connecticut, to name a few, and states that still lack “cottage food laws” most likely have them on the table. These bills, which aim to minimize the costly and prohibitive requirements for home-based food entrepreneurs, have caused concern with others who feel granting these food law exceptions will only open us up to unnecessary health risks. Considering the nearly 3000 deaths and 128,000 hospitalizations in the US every year from foodborne illnesses, it’s a valid concern. Looking at why these laws were created in the first place though makes granting more freedom to home-based food producers seem like the best thing for our health as well as our communities.
In the late 1800s, when the idea of regulating food began to percolate, many Americans, still agrarian (in 1880, 72% still lived in rural areas), felt that the ones buying the food should be responsible for inspecting it, not the government. Of course, most people either grew their own food or knew personally who did, so it makes sense they would resist¹ regulators meddling with it. At the same time, though, loads of people were ditching their pitchforks and moving to the city. As a result, unregulated food producers were finding new ways to provide larger quantities of food to a rapidly growing urban population which often involved cutting corners that sacrificed quality and employee well-being. If a dangerous pathogen found its way into one of their products, it wouldn’t just be a small outbreak in a home or village—it had the potential to affect an entire city, or even more! The stakes were suddenly a lot higher, and that’s why Uncle Sam finally stepped in.
In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was signed in to law, which not coincidentally was the same year “The Jungle”, an exposé on the notoriously poor conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry, was published. The book, which caused a public uproar, finally gave lawmakers the momentum they needed. Designed to protect consumers from “adulterated” or mislabeled products, the law was a boon for food safety advocates at the time but eventually proved to be ineffective.
It took a roaring ‘20s craze for quack radiation cures that produced unbelievable products like radioactive chocolate bars and facial cream, along with a peculiar case of a New York socialite’s jaw falling off do to exposure, to see the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formed and their authority in setting and enforcing safety standards crystallized. From this began the collection of federal and state food and drug laws we now have today.
As the new cottage food laws peel away some of these long-standing regulations for the smallest of food operations, it shouldn’t be seen as a careless disposal of safety precautions but instead a rebalancing. By granting small food businesses the freedom they need to get established, we are encouraging a new (or rather old) food system that is more sustainable and arguably much safer. Cottage food operators almost by definition oversee every stage of the process, which can eliminate many of the potential hazards of larger production. There’s also accountability. When a food producer actually knows their customers, a bad product could not only make someone sick but it could shut the business down and ruin their reputation almost immediately, so they’re naturally inclined to care greatly about the quality of what they’re selling. The good thing is that we know more about foodborne illnesses and sanitation than ever before, and even if states did, say, require a little education for CFOs on safe food handling (which some do), it wouldn’t take much to eliminate most potential mistakes.
Embracing cottage food laws does not mean eschewing all government intervention and returning to a pre-industrial agrarian society. What it does mean, though, is giving food entrepreneurs the freedom to earn a modest means of income as they innovate at their small farms, suburban homes or urban dwellings to produce healthier, more sustainable food for the communities they live in. When you think about it, the real risk would be to continue with the same broken food system we currently have. So honestly… what have we got to lose?
PS: If you live in Portland and you’ve got homemade/homegrown food to sell, trade, or give away, sign up for Ripelist beta, your mobile marketplace for home grown and cottage foods! (iPhone only… for now)
-Also if you want to learn more about the cottage food laws in your state check out forrager. It’s not affiliated with Ripelist but it’s a great resource!
¹Revision- There is actually little evidence of the public “resisting” government food regulations. A lot had to be done though to raise the public concern over food health and safety issues for anything to be done so it may be more accurate to call it “disinterest” instead of “resistance”.