At a farm marketing meeting in Michigan two years ago, a participant talked movingly about how his mother supported the family during the Depression by selling homemade pies to area restaurants. “If it hadn’t been for those pies, I don’t know how we would have made it,” he said.
Sadly, doing so today in Michigan and many other states is flatly illegal. Why? Concerns about food safety have prompted states to pass laws that require all food for sale must be prepared in a certified kitchen. In states such as Michigan, this not only prevents home cooks and bakers from marketing homemade wares, but it is why a producer at a farm market cannot slice up an apple or melon for you to taste – that, too, requires a certified kitchen, which is typically beyond the budget of many farmers’ markets and farmstands.
Shouldn’t states find a way to regulate Sara Lee effectively without preventing me from buying a slice of a real Mom’s homemade apple pie? So-called “cottage laws” address this conundrum by allowing people to offer consumers relatively small amounts of relatively safe homemade foods for sale without penalty. It doesn’t mean Mom can poison people with impunity, but she could sell homemade jams and jellies without facing a stiff fine if she’s caught. Without naming names, many of Michigan’s successful new food entrepreneurs knowingly or unknowingly broke the existing food safety law when they got started. For many small entrepreneurs, the cost of using a certified kitchen is simply prohibitive until their business grows large enough.
In Michigan, Rep. John Proos (R-St. Joseph) is sponsoring HR 5280 to ease Michigan’s tough food safety laws to allow for this small-scale food production. So if you have a great recipe from Grandma that you want to test market without investing a fortune, call your state representative to urge support for cottage laws.
The counter-argument is that we cannot know whether Mom’s kitchen is safe unless it is state inspected. And I have seen home kitchens that make me wince. But it seems to me that the real scandal is that there are so few food safety regulators keeping an eye on the big food makers. I’ll take my chances on Mom.
If you are thinking of a small food enterprise, take a moment to visit Cooking with Denay for some tips on getting started. (Her site also offers information on nutritional labeling.) Michigan State University’s Product Center also offers assistance. Mark your calendar for their food show at the Lansing Civic Center on November 11.