Food Policy

COVID Led to Massive Improvements in State Cottage Food Laws

States recognized the need to reduce regulations for cooks who work out of their homes.


Recent updates to already popular cottage food laws in a number of states will help home cooks connect in a variety of ways with more consumers. And that's great news for everyone who cooks, eats, or both.

As I've detailed in my book and many columns, cottage food laws are a class of legislation that deregulates some food sales by eliminating the need for budding food entrepreneurs to lease expensive commercial kitchen space, thus allowing people of all stripes to sell homemade foods they produce in their home kitchens. In that way, cottage food laws enable people to help support themselves and their families while working from home. That's particularly essential today because the Covid-19 pandemic has caused many Americans either to lose work—from bona fide chefs to talented home cooks who've been laid off from other fields—or required them to work from home.

While every state now has a cottage food law in place—welcome New Jersey!—the quality of these laws varies widely. Generally, state cottage food laws contain any number of limitations—as this 2018 Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic report details—including rules for licensing, permitting, and inspection; labeling requirements; restrictions on the types of foods that may be sold; limitations on place of sale; and sales caps.

Given these potential restrictions, state cottage food laws can differ wildly, and are often crying out for improvement. A decade ago—in a Hit & Run blog post on "the many inane requirements of New York State's cottage foods law"—I noted that though cottage food laws are generally good, there are elements to nearly every cottage food law that leave much to be desired.

That's where the aforementioned recent improvements to a host of state laws come into play. Last week, for example, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker became the latest state executive around the country to ratify improvements to a state's cottage food law. The updated Illinois law will expand the number and type of legal sales venues—which had been limited to farmers markets.

In Alabama, lawmakers recently amended the state's existing cottage food law to eliminate the state's low $20,000 sales cap for selling cottage foods, expand the list of foods that may be sold under the law, and lift a ban on online sales.  In Arkansas, lawmakers replaced much of the state's existing cottage food law, removing some licensing, inspection, and labeling requirements and adding more permissive language that allows the sale of more types of foods, along with additional sales venues.

Minnesota lawmakers raised that state's cap on cottage foods sales from $18,000 to $78,000, along with other changes. And Florida legislators lifted the cap on cottage foods sales there, too, boosting the limit from $50,000 to $250,000. The updated Florida law also greatly expands the type of sales venues and bars local governments and health departments—which often chafe at having to comply with state cottage food laws—from establishing stricter standards than those mandated statewide.

Several other states also updated their cottage food laws during their respective 2021 legislative sessions, including Indiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Overall, while some of these updates added additional requirements—for example, Alabama's updated law requires nutrition information to be added to cottage food product labels—the general trend nationwide is to reduce the red tape cottage food producers face. That's a good thing!

"2021 has been an unprecedented year for the cottage food industry," says David Crabill, who runs the respected cottage food website, in an email to me this week. "2020 showed us why cottage food laws are so important to have, and as a result, over half of the states tried to improve their law this year. Going forward, we can expect even more states to jump on board by implementing good cottage food laws that give their citizens the freedom to start a food business more easily and earn income to support themselves and their families."

Rather than serving as an endpoint, lawmakers' recent improvements to cottage food laws around the country point to the need and capacity to continue to improve these laws. Notably, I'm currently working on a study for the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes Reason), tentatively titled Out of Your Kitchen, that compares state laws governing the sale of homemade foods. These include not just cottage food laws but also food freedom laws and what are known as microenterprise home kitchen ordinances. As the report will reveal, the best state laws governing the sale of homemade foods are the ones that contain the fewest and least onerous restrictions.