Free the Food

Cottage food industry regulations need revamp

Farmers' markets often sell cottage foods (image via WikiCommons).

“Aunt Karen, your homemade salsa is so good. You should bottle it and sell it!”

You’ve probably said something similar to a relative, friend or neighbor. And this is how many food companies get started – a recipe of homemade hard work, a pinch of encouragement and a healthy dose of risk-taking.

But in Michigan, it is harder for some food entrepreneurs to get started than others, as the state regulates this so-called cottage food industry in a seemingly arbitrary way.

State law does exempt anyone who sells less than $20,000 worth of homemade food from the mountains of regulations, rules and licensing requirements the state heaps on food producers. But this applies to makers of only certain types of food. (And this does not pertain to pet food. To make and sell that, of course, you'll need a license.)

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According to Forrager.com, a website devoted to the cottage food industry, Michiganders can make and sell cherry and pecan pies, but not pumpkin or sweet potato. You can roast coffee beans and sell them, but you can’t add water and sell the resulting coffee. Most jams, jellies, nut butters and vinegars are okay, but ketchup, mustard, relish and salsa are prohibited. Finally, you can sell chocolate-covered strawberries, but not…strawberries.

Other seemingly random rules apply to cottage food producers. For instance, food producers cannot sell their food over the Internet – all sales must be done person-to-person. It’s also not allowed to donate your food to someone else who might give it away or sell it. You can, apparently, donate food to someone who just wants to eat it, though. How any of this protects consumers is not clear.

Finally, food may only be produced in a person’s “primary residence,” meaning you’d be breaking the cottage food law if you sold food cooked in the kitchen of your cottage (irony intended).

Public health concerns might explain some of these rules, but these concerns don’t manifest themselves in face of these capricious rules. Regardless, homemade food producers sell such small quantities that it’s unlikely they would ever pose a significant threat to public health. Further, the regulations and licensing mandates required of larger food producers do not eliminate the possibility that they could threaten public health anyway.

Texas recently relaxed its cottage food industry regulations, and witnessed food entrepreneurs from all over the Lone Star State create thousands of new small businesses. Michigan policymakers should consider doing the same and revisit our cottage food industry laws.

(After this, maybe we can reassess the threat that unlicensed dog biscuits might pose to public health.)