Bake Sale Bandits

Local Movement Fights for Cottage Food Bill.

A "Texas Baker's Bill" was filed in the 2009 session of the legislature. It made it through committee, but died without a vote. One criticism of the bill was that baking was too narrow. And so the focus of HB 1139 was expanded to include cottage foods in general. The group now uses a Facebook page titled Texas Baker's Bill as a gathering point. They chose a version of the Gonzales "Come and Take It" flag as their logo, substituting a slice of cake for the cannon and changing the words to "Come and Bake It."

"We are just like the citizens of Gonzales during the war with Mexico, an informal group united by a common goal," the group's organizer said.

On one side of this strangely comic 21st-century food culture war are "Come and Bake It" cookie ladies from across the state who are going from office to office in the corridors of the Capitol Building in Austin handing out homemade cookies to legislators and staffers while asking them to vote for HB 1139. And on the other side, the anonymous lawyers from "Big Food" are lobbying to stiffen existing food-safety regulations to make things even tougher on farmers markets and cottage producers.

Al Marcus, who prepares his cured pork products in a certified kitchen in the Heights in Houston, doesn't see the need for a Cottage Food Bill.
Chris Curry
Al Marcus, who prepares his cured pork products in a certified kitchen in the Heights in Houston, doesn't see the need for a Cottage Food Bill.
Some home bakers don't want to open a business; they want to work from home with their kids.
Bethany Davila
Some home bakers don't want to open a business; they want to work from home with their kids.

America became obsessed with food safety standards after the 1906 publication of The Jungle, a novel by muckraker Upton Sinclair, who got a job in a Chicago meatpacking plant to research conditions. In the book, diseased cows, rats and rancid bits of meat end up in the sausage. In one chapter, a worker falls into the rendering vat and gets ground up along with a bunch of other debris to become part of Durham's Pure Leaf Lard.

Upton Sinclair was an avowed socialist who wrote The Jungle to bring attention to horrific working conditions and the abuse of immigrant and child labor. But his descriptions of what went into the sausage were what got Americans up in arms. President Theodore Roosevelt considered Sinclair a "crackpot" and sent his own inspectors to Chicago, where they found conditions almost as atrocious as Sinclair depicted them. Due to the public outcry, the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act were passed in Congress in 1906. The Food and Drug Administration was a direct descendant of these laws. In response to the federal laws, state and local health departments around the country took up the subject of food safety.

In 1907, the state health department of Texas formed a Dairy and Food Commission to administer newly passed Texas food and drug laws. These food safety laws brought welcome improvement in sanitation standards and needed reforms to the dairy industry, which regularly sold tainted and diluted milk to the public. But the new food safety standards also brought sweeping changes to the street-food culture that had long flourished in Texas. Open-pit barbecues, tamale carts and other street vendors, outdoor chili stands and oyster bars were among the casualties of society's new focus on safety. A great many Texas restaurants were erected in the years following 1907 to make up for the loss of street foods.

Cane syrup and sorghum syrup had been the most common sweeteners in Texas before the creation of the food safety laws. The small outdoor farm mills where these syrups were produced were eventually regulated out of existence. You can see an old-fashioned cane syrup mill in action at the Heritage Festival in the East Texas town of Henderson once a year. But the health authorities won't let you buy the syrup.

Filling the gap created when traditional farm-made syrups disappeared and imported cane sugar became too expensive, high-fructose corn syrup has become the nation's most common sweetener. High-fructose corn syrup is cheap, thanks to the billions of dollars in subsidies American taxpayers supply to the corn industry. But despite a $30 million advertising campaign launched by the Corn Refiners Association to convince Americans there is nothing wrong with the high-tech sweetener, many consumers are skeptical.

While there is no doubt that the food safety reforms of a century ago were needed, their perverse legacy is a food system that subsidizes questionable products like corn syrup-sweetened Twinkies while outlawing the sale of homemade cookies.

How did America end up with such a bizarre food culture?

Food writers like Michael Pollan and movies like Food, Inc. argue that our nation's food policy has been hijacked by "Big Food" and its lobbyists. During the process of getting the new Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act through Congress last year, The Washington Post reported that 221 food corporations and associations, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Restaurant Association, employed 77 different Washington lobbying firms to represent their interests. As you might guess, cottage food producers don't get much in the way of lobbying help.

Small farmers like Morgan Weber, who raises heritage pigs in his pastures in Yoakum, are struggling with requirements written by the FDA that apply to giant factory farms. Morgan likes to quote a fellow meat producer in Virginia named Joel Salatin, who wrote the book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. On the subject of the new federal food safety laws, Salatin said, "It's an industrial attempt to demonize, marginalize and criminalize the true antidote, which is pasture-based, diversified, locally commerced food."

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