Food

Sweet Victories: Three States Make It Easier for Home Cooks To Be Entrepreneurs

Oklahoma, Alabama, and Montana are the latest states to deregulate homemade food sales.

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With a flurry of new food freedom laws, more states are allowing home food producers to do what they have been doing since the dawn of commerce: sell their products directly to customers without the hefty burdens of a commercial food license. This wave of legislation comes at a time when the pandemic has upset the food industry and shuttered the nation away in their houses—leading many crafty individuals to turn to home food production as a way to make money and serve their communities. 

Oklahoma, Alabama, and Montana are the latest states to deregulate home food production.

Oklahoma's Homemade Food Freedom Act, signed into law on May 10, is one of the most permissive food freedom laws yet. It allows people to sell any homemade food products that are free from meat or seafood without a government license, permit, or inspection. Shelf-stable and perishable products can be sold directly to consumers—face to face or online—and nonperishable items can also be sold at farmers markets and even in retail stores.

The Oklahoma law also lifts the cap of $20,000 in sales that previously burdened home producers. Businesses can now be considered "home food establishments" so long as they have gross annual sales of less than $75,000.

For many farmers, bakers, and other owners of small food businesses, the new law eliminates barriers to competing with larger businesses and will allow local small businesses to thrive. It's "a crucial step for hardworking Oklahomans to get started with their homemade food business," Thanh Tran, a leader of the Oklahoma Young Farmers Coalition, tells the Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian legal organization that helped craft Oklahoma's bill, "They can directly start out of their own resources and not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars" every year to operate a commercial kitchen. 

A similar bill was passed in Alabama on May 6. Like the Oklahoma bill, it expands the foods home chefs—also called cottage-food producers—can sell, slashes regulatory barriers, and lifts the cap on sales that keeps small producers small. 

Melissa Humble testified in favor of the bill to the Alabama Senate Healthcare Committee. Humble was a teacher and a photographer, but stopped working those jobs when the pandemic started because her husband was immunocompromised and it would have put his health at risk. To provide for her family and pay off the debt they incurred during the pandemic, Humble began her own home bakery business, HumbleBee Bakes, specializing in French macarons. "Being able to start a business under the cottage law has helped me pay my bills and feel like I'm a contributing member of society," she wrote in her testimony

But Humble ran up against Alabama's then-$20,000 cap on homemade food sales. This past December alone, she had to turn away 20 orders—$400 worth of sales—which forced her to take on another job to make a living. "If I could earn more revenue," she said, "I would have the opportunity to grow my business and hire employees, providing jobs for more people." 

A 2017 IJ study of 775 home food producers in 22 states found that a majority were—like Humble—married women living in rural areas with household incomes below the national average. Selling homemade food gives these women the opportunity to use their skills to participate in the economy on their own terms. Now that the $20,000 barrier is gone, home bakers in Oklahoma and Alabama are not hindered by regulation from turning their home projects into small businesses. 

Meanwhile, Montana's Local Food Choice Act allows some categories of homemade food producers—including those operating small dairies—to sell goods to individuals or at "traditional community social events" without "licensure, permitting, certification, packaging, labeling, testing, sampling, or inspection." (Cottage-food producers will still need to pay $40 for a cottage-food license and follow certain labeling requirements.) It also includes a provision expanding the legal sale of raw milk by small producers. 

Local small farmer Sara Richardson of JLbar Farm supported the bill. "For the smaller guys, they can't usually deal with the regulatory system put in place to keep the big guys in check," she tells Reason. "There's absolutely no way for the little guys to compete with the big guys, in the system."

The National Environmental Health Association has identified 41 bills related to the cottage-food industry proposed in 24 states so far during the 2021–22 legislative session. These include new Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations laws in California and Utah and Colorado's meat deregulation law. Food freedom laws have also recently passed in Arkansas and Minnesota, and there are bills under consideration in Illinois, Florida, and Washington.

This barrage of bills cutting food regulation appears to be one upside to the havoc that the pandemic has wreaked on the traditional food and restaurant industry.

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  1. These rules were put into place to prevent food poisoning. I agree that we should not have onerous regulations, but no regulations is not in the public interest. Home cooked goods, especially milk or canned goods can easily harbor nasty bacterial if not made correctly.

    1. So no one can even cook at home for themselves without a bureaucrat?

      1. Of course not. But there needs to be some oversight and regulations when you are selling items for others.

        1. Why? Because the profit motive incentivizes cooks to poison their customers? Please explain this.

          1. They won’t do it intentionally of course. But will they follow safe food handling procedures? Will they know how to properly can foods?

            1. diligence is your friend.

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    2. I will concede that was the rationale presented for those rules. However, those rules have been almost entirely ineffective since the large food producers still have food poisoning outbreaks and there was never any good evidence that home-cooked goods were a significant risk of food poisoning outbreaks.

      Remember that by the logic of your argument, cooking for your own family should be outlawed as more likely to cause food poisoning than eating at a restaurant – the exact opposite of the data that we see. There’s no practical difference between the home-cooked goods you make for your family and the home-cooked goods you sell to your neighbors.

      Sadly, the evidence is more supportive of the hypothesis that food poisoning was a pretext and that the actual rationale was economic protectionism.

      1. There is less food poisoning in situations where the cooker and the eater know each other, because there is a strong incentive not to make someone you know sick.

        1. In other words, a small business owner who knows all her customers (because they are her neighbors) is going to be more diligent and have lesser food poisoning risk than the big impersonal food factory workers.

          I actually agree with that – and it reinforces my point that these laws ‘food safety’ laws were more about economic protectionism than food safety.

  2. Growing up there was a lady who ran a taqueria out of her house. Best Mexican restaurant in a town full of Mexican restaurants. Go down the walk to the back yard and pick up your order right at the kitchen window by Mama Delgado herself. Real tortillas from scratch only two minutes old.

    No bureaucrats. No county commissioners of health and safety. No goddamn karens because they hadn’t invented karens yet.

    Nobody has yet been able to explain to my satisfaction why Mama Delgado’s food was any more dangerous than my own Mama’s cooking.

  3. People will literally eat garbage in the form of fast food. But homemade is bad for you sez the feds. That’s government in a nutshell. Fast food shit companies have big lawyers and accountants and can follow the regs, because they have politicos in their back pocket.

  4. Regulations yet some big produce producers have had bacteria show up in their lettuce and other vegetables. I go to my local farm stands and that has never happened. Some made preserves and never had an issue. Useless laws under the guise of defending me. I only need defense from arrogant bureaucrats.

  5. Don’t stop with just food.

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