Bake Sale Bandits

Local Movement Fights for Cottage Food Bill.

Appearing before Congress after a meat recall in 2008, Salatin testified: "You can't regulate integrity...It is not a lack of government oversight that created this opaqueness, but rather the cozy government-industrial fraternity that criminalized neighborhood abattoirs and cottage-based food processing. Ultimately, you cannot have a transparent food system without a production and processing model that reinserts the butcher, baker and candlestick maker into their village."

Consumers are eager to get away from the high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, chemicals and preservatives that modern-day muckrakers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have warned them about. And as a result, more and more organic, natural and artisan food products are being sold at farmers markets and small farms. But when the local food movement started diverting a significant amount of business away from grocery stores, big agriculture and major food producers, it became a target. And so Big Food has turned the public debate about food safety on its head—they are using food safety laws to put small local competitors out of business.

Last summer, citing pressure from legislators, health authorities across the state of Texas began a crackdown. In July, Texas Department of State Health Services officials launched a statewide sting operation that cited 355 food companies with possible violations. Many of the infractions defied logic. Several producers, including Angelo's Barbecue in Fort Worth, were fined for not having manufacturing licenses, despite the fact that they don't manufacture anything—their products are private-labeled by other companies.

Farm-made syrups have disappeared because of health regulations, while high-fructose corn syrup is subsidized.
Paul Howell
Farm-made syrups have disappeared because of health regulations, while high-fructose corn syrup is subsidized.
At the Henderson Heritage Syrup Festival, a mule turns an old-fashioned cane press to make cane juice.
Paul Howell
At the Henderson Heritage Syrup Festival, a mule turns an old-fashioned cane press to make cane juice.

Hank's Ice Cream in Houston was told it needed a state manufacturing license and state inspections, even though its production kitchen is certified by the City of Houston health department. Katz Coffee in Houston was ordered to install a certified kitchen with a three-compartment sink and a grease trap by the city. The coffee roaster doesn't have anything to wash and doesn't produce any grease.

Obviously, this kind of legal nitpicking has little or nothing to do with the public safety.

At a press event in a Houston restaurant, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples was eating fried eggs and talking about East Texas food. "I used to eat at a place called Billy Burgers in Neches when I was a state rep," he said. "They served homemade pies from a lady that lived nearby. The health department doesn't allow that anymore. That's a great example of the kind of over-regulation that makes it difficult for people to make a living."

Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), who was also sitting at the table, agreed. When asked if they would support a bill that would allow home cooks to sell their products at farmers markets and roadside stands, both Staples and Whitmire agreed that this was an excellent idea. "I am becoming more of a libertarian every day," Whitmire said. We shall soon see if such breakfast-table common sense can survive in the 2011 session of the Texas Legislature.

"Before the legislative session started, I convened a 'Farm to Table' Town Hall meeting at the East Side Show Room in Austin," state legislator Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) wrote me in an e-mail. "I wanted to know from local farmers and chefs what the state could do to help the local food movement in Texas. By and large it wasn't help they were seeking from government, but for government to get out of their way."

The Texas Cottage Food Bill, HB 1139, was one of several bills that Rodriguez proposed to help the local food movement. "Of course, we have to ensure the safety of consumers, but this must be done without raising the barrier to market entry so high as to discourage new enterprises. Small producers and urban farms get into this business because they care about the food chain. Consistently the safety problems that arise come from large-scale 'Big Food' factories and not the small family operations we want to help."

Since 2009, the number of states with cottage food laws has doubled. There are currently 11 states with such laws in place and six with bills under consideration. The first was passed by Oregon more than 20 years ago. Under Oregon regulations, home kitchens are inspected and approved by the same health authorities who certify restaurant and commercial kitchens. The standards are strict and surprise visits are part of the law.

Elizabeth Montes, the owner of Sagahuan Chocolates, is one of many Oregonians who took advantage of the law to start a business at home. "After I graduated from Ecole Chocolat in Canada, I moved to New York," Montes says. "But it cost so much to rent a commercial kitchen, I couldn't work for myself. Then I moved to Oregon and found out about the cottage food law." After several years of making chocolates at home and selling them at farmers markets, Montes saved enough to open her own brick-and-mortar chocolate shop. She has since been featured in several major food magazines.

Under the most recent cottage food law, enacted in Michigan, home kitchens are exempted from health department regulations if they produce nonhazardous foods such as cakes, cookies, jams and jellies and their volume of business is under $15,000. Although it initially met with resistance from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and established food companies, the cottage food law has become the darling of state government in Lansing after being recognized nationally as an enlightened effort to help small entrepreneurs.

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