Monday, February 28, 2011

Texas Cottage Food Law aka "The Baker's Bill"

Angel Food Cake
Did you know that private bake sales are illegal in 33 of our 50 states? Yep, it is against the law to produce food for sale to the public outside of a certified kitchen, even for your church or school fundraiser. Not that people don’t still do it, but it’s against the law. Every year I produce a stunning array of pickles (like the peppers pictured above), jams, jellies, salsas, pressure-canned veggies and baked goods. I am not allowed to sell any of them. I often use them to trade for other things we don’t produce ourselves (like fish and game) and they make nice gifts, but I can’t sell them.

I remember our annual Halloween fair we held at our old school gymnasium. There were always homemade goodies for sale there to benefit the school – cookies, popcorn balls, rice-krispy treats, brownies and caramel apples. And then there was the Cake Walk! There was a big circle taped to the floor and there was a different number taped to the floor every couple of feet. Each number corresponded to a cake or pie the women of the community had baked. (And of course, some of those cakes and pies were already famous and highly desired!) People would pay several dollars per walk. Someone would play music while the contestants walked around in the numbered circle. When the music stopped, a number would be drawn from a hat and if anyone was standing on that number, they won that cake or pie. Good times. And completely illegal now.

Even 10-15 years ago, people could bring goods produced in their home kitchens to sell at farmer’s markets, fairs and auctions. I’m not sure when it actually became illegal, but I do remember when the law started to become enforced. And what a stink it caused!

And there’s some justification for it. Years ago, someone bottled up and sold some “herbal oils” which included whole cloves of garlic for cooking with. In spite of the fact that raw garlic is considered anti-bacterial by people who use it for natural healing, apparently it isn’t immune to botulism. The oils caused several deaths and illnesses.

The sad fact is, people know so little about food anymore, I suppose it’s safe to say there need to be laws in place to protect us from ourselves. And of course, the “Nanny State” we live in is more than willing to comply. Having grown up in a community where I learned canning and food processing at a young age, I’m often shocked at the ignorance regarding safe food manufacturing and storage in people's home kitchens, even by those much older than myself.

The even sadder fact is that all the laws that are in place now have very little effect on large companies and corporate industries that manufacture and distribute food, but make it near impossible for small producers and farmers to sell their products directly to the consumer. Meanwhile, consumers are screaming “Locally Grown” and “Organic” and “Seasonal” and “Green! Those same consumers are also most often the ones who know the least about food safety and are most responsible for making sure the Food Police regulate every aspect of food production, I’m sorry to say.

A new food law was passed in 2010. And yet there are still massive food recalls happening every week. Almost all of the recalls are by large producers – many of those with their own federal inspectors on-site.  Meanwhile, if I want to sell a few eggs here and there to help cover feed costs, I either have to do it on a large scale or not at all to be able to comply with all the ridiculous and unnecessary regulations that don’t even apply to fresh, just-laid eggs. So we keep our flock small and when we have too many eggs, our pets eat very well! So sad for everyone else that might enjoy them, but that’s just the way it is.

So it stunned me a few weeks ago when I was watching the local news out of DFW. There is a dedicated group of home bakers in Texas trying to get a new food law passed that will allow non-hazardous foods to be produced for sale from home kitchens. It’s a very reasonable bill that includes baked items that need no refrigeration and high-acid food like pickles, jams, jellies and salsas. For the official site, go here.

There are some restrictions that will hinder just anyone from doing it. For one, there can be no pets entering or living in the dwelling that houses the kitchen. I suppose that’s a reasonable request – I don’t mind eating a little of my own pet hair, but I’d rather not eat anyone else’s!

The baker/processor must also take the Food Safety Course, which is available through the County Extension office. I took it a few years ago when I was considering setting up a state-certified farm kitchen. It’s a little overkill in regards to fresh farm food I’d prepare for my own family, but I’m glad restaurant owners and managers are required to take it. The fee for the class is very reasonable.

There’s a cap on income produced in the home kitchen -- $150,000. If I were able to make a quarter of that in addition to everything else I do on a daily basis, I’d just open my own business and have a state-certified, restaurant-quality kitchen! There’s also restrictions on sales – no internet, mail-order or consignment sales – in other words, you have to sell the products directly, all by yourself, with the proper labeling.

For myself, I’m considering the possibilities ahead. The bill may not pass this year, but eventually, it WILL pass. I’ve long wanted a separate “Summer Kitchen” much like the Amish have. Eventually, I might like to get it state-certified so I can produce and sell anything I want from it, but until then, this law would allow me to fund it without jumping through regulatory hoops to get it. It would also help me justify the cost of running a produce stand directly from my farm – as it stands now, I don’t always have enough produce to sell every week, but if I were able to sell home-baked and canned goods on the side, it would justify the cost of building and manning such a structure.

And I’ll be able to market some farm products with added value: the angel food cake in the picture above uses about a dozen egg whites. The egg yolks could be used to make egg noodles. I’m sure I’d still have to sanitize my own eggs before using them, but that’s less trouble than complying with the ridiculous regulations that would allow me to sell fresh eggs to the public.

Anyway, the Baker’s Bill is a step in the right direction. Seventeen states already have some version of it, and two of those are allowed to sell at Farmer’s Markets. At the very least, it puts us in direct contact with people who are willing and able to prepare foods for us that we are willing to eat. No one should be able to tell us we’re too stupid to buy our food from a private individual! If you live in Texas, please support this bill. If you live elsewhere, find out what your state is doing and support them. Let’s take back our national food supply and put it in the hands of small producers who care about what they're doing and are trying to bring back sustainability on their own farms!


sk hanna said...

oh man! well, that thows a major clod in my egg business churn! I had intended on retiring to a small town and doing a small on-site egg business--just eggs--well, maybe some processed hens at the end of the fall. But now. What am I going to do? I had intended on doing organic or at least free range eggs and moving the hens daily so they don't tromp around in yesterday's poo and have new fresh grass and bugs always. Standards are to not visit the original grazing spot for three years--so you see it takes a few acres. This is daily work which I looked forward to. Now, with what you say, I would be illegal to sell eggs from my porch--not to mention a frozen processed organic hen! Where do I turn? I just a little mad about this.

Diane said...

Don't let me discourage you from your plans. It's not illegal to sell eggs from your farm, it's just a royal pain! And it's expensive. The worst thing about it is that the laws & regulations actually make for a product of lesser quality than what you'll be producing & eating yourself. That has always bothered me, that what we painstakingly produce from our own farm & eat every day isn't good enough for others.
Also, the general public is not nearly as knowledgeable about food as they think they are. You mentioned selling some "processed hens" when they were done laying. There's not a person out there that will buy more than one of them, even if you provide them with recipes & actually managed to find a processor who could legally butcher them for you. The plump, juicy baking/stewing hens you find in the market are less than 5 months old & have never laid an egg in their short lives. They are genetically-enhanced broilers that were allowed to get larger than the 6-7 pound weight commercial chickens are butchered at. I've attempted to share (not sell) some of my "stewing" hens with people I thought might appreciate the flavor of an older bird & I've been met with outrage. Any bird more than 5 months of age is going to seem "tough" to people who've never eaten anything but commercial chicken, which is nothing more than flavorless mush. Have YOU ever actually eaten a hen that has already laid eggs?
As for "standards are not to visit the original grazing spot for 3 years," I'm sorry to say that I have no idea what you mean. How many hens were you planning on raising in tractors & moving every day? We have only 10 acres & our 30 or so hens (& sometimes broilers + extra roosters + young chicks) run freely over most of it. We've found it cheaper & easier to keep our gardens & property lines fenced off than keep the chickens confined. They graze freely over the same property day after day & we have no disease or maladies. We also have few grasshoppers, snakes & scorpions, which is a good thing & something that can't be had raising them in confinement.
It's awesome that your future plans involve retiring to a farm. I urge you to read the blog "How Many Miles from Babylon" before you think to make a living from it though. Sometimes we find there is a greater value in NOT selling food from our farms & cutting government out of them entirely rather than entangling ourselves in laws & regulations that make us slaves to the system we seek to escape.