Selling What You Cook at Home

by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
April 3, 2012
Image courtesy Flickr user emily.muldoon

Let’s say you’ve got a great jam recipe. Or perhaps you make some mean pickles.  Your friends keep telling you that you should quit your day job and follow your culinary passion. But unless you’ve got quite a bit of savings or other access to capital, following your friends’ advice is a pricey proposition.

That’s because in California, you can’t sell any food prepared in a home kitchen.  And access to a licensed commercial kitchen costs money — usually starting at around $30 per hour in the Bay Area. Add your ingredient and labor costs, and it becomes a decent investment to test your business idea.  

A proposed piece of state legislation, the California Homemade Food Act, would change all that. Called the “cottage food bill,” the legislation would allow Californians to sell certain items produced from their home kitchen. Similar to legislation already enacted in more than 30 other states, the bill comes with certain restrictions, including only allowing the sale of what the health department refers to as “non potentially hazardous” items, which basically means products that would not go bad sitting on a shelf for a few days.

On March 27, supporters of the law — including Christina Oatfield of the Sustainable Economies Law Center and Shakirah Simley, owner of Slow Jams — discussed the proposal alongside Richard Lee of the San Francisco Department of Public Health at an event co-sponsored by Kitchen Table Talks, 18 Reasons and SPUR. Lee raised a number of concerns that he and other public health officials statewide shared. The proposed legislation would give the health department much less authority to inspect home kitchens that sold goods to the public than what it has for inspecting licensed commercial kitchens. He expressed concerns about whether home producers would follow best practices regarding hand washing, sanitizing surfaces, pet contamination, vermin, appropriate labeling of allergens and distinguishing what is and is not potentially hazardous food. Oatfield responded by noting that that advocates were working with the health officials to add amendments to address some of their concerns.

She also discussed the issue of scale-appropriate regulation — the idea that the less risk an activity poses to society, the less regulation it requires (and vice-versa).  Since home kitchens produce much less volume and serve fewer customers than commercial kitchens, the thinking goes, they should not be subject to the same inspections. One of the aspects of the legislation currently under negotiation is whether a cap, based on sales volume, should be added to prevent a home kitchen from producing at the scale of a commercial kitchen.

The legislation is just beginning to make its way through the California Assembly. It is almost certain to be amended as food-producing entrepreneurs push for lower barriers to entry and public health regulators push to ensure food safety. But, if it does become law, Californians would be able to both sell what they grow from their home garden and what they cook in their home kitchen.

Read the California Homemade Food Act >>

Read more about the proposed legislation from the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture >>