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City of Plano Goes the Extra Mile to Make Texas' New Cottage Food Law Totally Useless

Yesterday, the Department of State Health Services hosted a meeting in Austin on the proposed new labeling rules for the Texas Cottage Food law, which have bakers in an uproar. And if this video wasn't a clear indication of how the city of Plano feels about the newfound freedom of home bakers, their representative at the meeting hammered home the point.

Kelley Masters of the Texas Baker's Bill Facebook page, who was in attendance at the meeting, reports back that the Plano official spoke in favor of the new labeling rules and went on to call the law an "unfunded mandate."

The law was designed to allow home-bakers to sell their goods without being commercially licensed. But the new labeling requirements and other proposed restrictions are basically neutering the law.

I spoke Thursday with Brian Collins, Plano's Director of Environmental Health, about the city's involvement in the meeting. He said the city sent Geoffrey Heinicke, the city's environmental health manager, to Austin to provide comments on the labeling portion of the Cottage Food Law. When asked to expand on the "unfunded mandate," Collins offered this:

"The Cottage Food Bill actually requires that if there is a problem with food from a home baker (...) that the complainant should contact their local health department, but beyond that there's no guidance as to what's to be done. And in putting that requirement into law, it requires the local health department to extend resources, to take the call and document the call. Then, there's no guidance with what to do. Certainly we don't have the resources to send people on chases to people's homes in regards to Cottage Food Laws."

The Cottage Food Law stipulates that records are supposed to be kept regarding any complaints, but nowhere does it dictate that home kitchens need to be inspected by city health departments. Collins agreed, but pointed to the expectations of callers:

"That's the difficulty," said Collins. "If it says to call your local health department on the other end of the phone the person wants to know what you're going to do about it. There's an expectation that their local health department will respond."

Matt Cloninger is in the Restaurant and Bar Inspection Division in Code Compliance for the City of Dallas. He explained that there are several ways Dallas handles those types of calls. Residents can either use the online system, call 3-1-1 or the Code Compliance office.

As far as the resources needed to track those calls?

"We have a complaint system that we use," said Cloninger. "And depending on what it is would determine what we do with it. But, we haven't gotten any of those types of complaints yet."

As it currently stands, the Cottage Food Law requires all home-bakers to label their goods with a statement along the lines of, "This product was made in a home kitchen that was not inspected by a health department." Legislators added this to serve as a safety net.

After pointing that out to Collins, he said, "That's why we're in favor it."

But the meeting Thursday was about adding additional rules, like a list of ingredients by weight in descending order, allergen information and net weight. Home bakers are frustrated by this because they feel there is a true disconnect between the people who are writing these rules and whose affected by those rules. Weighing a wedding cake for a custom order seems excessive.

"It's not any different than a commercial manufacturer would be required to do," said Colllins.

But commercial manufacturers have resources. At-home bakers trying to make a few extra bucks by decorating cakes have a home computer and a printer that's probably out of ink. That distinction is the whole point of the bill. But that's lost on Collins.

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"And I think with that," Collins said, "commercial manufacturers also have a better understanding of what food safety components are and a better understanding of what the culpability is from a legal perspective. Whereas someone producing at home may not, just may not, have those concerns until after something happens. And once it happens, we're in the game regardless."

On the push for more labeling, Collins emphasizes the ability to "trace-back" in the event there is a complaint. But the name and address of the baker is already required to be on the packaging per the original law. And since these are mostly custom orders and the seller interacts directly with the buyer, trace-back hardly seems like an issue.

I put the question directly to Collins, "Does the city of Plano support home bakers?"

"We support the labeling. We're about food safety and public health. We want to do whatever we can to mitigate the incidents of food borne illness in this regard. So, with the law already passed right now, we're in favor of the labeling component that allows us to do a trace-back or recall."

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