Photograph by Dennis Wilkinson
Photograph by Dennis Wilkinson

Baking Bad: Is Homemade Food Safe for Sale?

For the past half decade or so, criminals-in-hiding have morphed into culinary heroes as state legislatures loosen laws prohibiting the sale of “cottage food”—products made in a home kitchen for commercial sale.

Vendors formerly banished to underground foodie black markets in ever-changing locations like parking lots and shuttered warehouses now sell openly in the light of farmers’ markets and the internet. And the single element most driving the curious nationwide shift in governments’ decrees that food made in uninspected home kitchens is now safe for public sale: social media.

Mom’s Cookies vs. Grocery Store Buys

At the same time that technology isolates users from what is real by relegating us to screens, it gives consumers the astonishing ability to directly communicate with and hear the stories of those who make our food. (Astonishing, that is, for the past half-century or so of human history. Before that, most people knew the person who made their food.) Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest are modern equivalents of fire circles, where the hungry gather to devour mythic stories of baking, sourcing, and stewing. Technology creates ravenous appetites for the real, and allows immediate purchase (if not consumption of) the real, complete with satisfying stories. Illegal cookies made by mom vs. rows and rows of Oreos in a sterile grocery store: How could food safety laws compete?

Although selling homemade cookies is as time-tested as bake sales, the practice became the target of 1990s laws to ban the public sale of food produced outside of commercial kitchens. Then with the rise of interest in food generally over the following decade or so, would-be culinary entrepreneurs questioned why mass-produced crackers should be acceptable to regulators while homemade, small batch ones were somehow suspect. The artisan food movement quietly lead an effective lobbying effort to reform the patchwork of state and local decrees known as Cottage Food Laws to commercially sell food made in a home.

Laws Banning Homemade Food Encourage Business Growth

Of course, just because a law’s origin is based in human passion (truly, what law isn’t?) doesn’t mean there’s not solid logic, too. To feed a planet of 7 billion people, the United States must do its part to diversify food systems. By relieving home cooks from the usual requirements for commercial kitchens and permits, Cottage Food Laws encourage microbusinesses that may evolve into serious local food systems in regions beyond the obvious foodie hotbeds of San Francisco or Austin. Even after reform, most of the laws still regulate the amount of food that a vendor can sell (from $5,000 to $50,000), where it can be sold, and the labeling (warning that the food is made in an uninspected home kitchen—which sounds creepy, even though all of my meals are made in an uninspected home kitchen).

All laws allow only the sale of not potentially hazardous foods that have low risk for food borne illnesses, like baked goods. The issue comes down to protecting citizens. The government’s job is to ensure public safety and public officials get itchy about loosening licensing and inspection requirements because no legislator wants to answer the media call the first time someone gets sick from a Cottage Food product. And good luck with the PR nightmare if that person is a child. To this point, several state universities like Texas A&M and Michigan State are offering inexpensive extension classes to educate potential cottage food vendors about having adequate insurance and food safety training.

Recent cottage food laws combine increasing fascination with the alluring charm of handcrafted food with the Internet’s ability to deliver romantic stories about foodmakers. It’s a perfect storm of technology at once creating and satisfying a hunger, so expect more cottage foods in America’s future.