Typically, commercial food production is required to take place in certified commercial kitchens that are heavily regulated. Cottage foods laws regulate the production and sale of certain foods (foods less likely to cause foodborne illness, such as jams and baked goods) made in home kitchens, rather than a licensed commercial kitchen, and a person’s ability sell them in venues like farm stands or retail stores. Similar state laws, called “food freedom laws,” expand upon cottage food laws to include potentially hazardous products like meat and poultry.
These laws are quickly becoming an increasing area of debate at the state level. Part of this debate centers on the economic rights of “small-batch” home bakers and cooks versus public health and safety concerns. These private bakers, canners, and cooks want the liberty to sell their products to consumers free from the onerous licensing requirements required of their larger commercial counterparts, restaurants and food processing plants, are subject to. At the same time, there is concern that this individual economic interest is riding roughshod over existing regulations designed to protect consumers from foodborne illnesses that can be caused by improperly prepared foods.
Forty-nine states currently allow the sale of in-home production and sale of cottage foods.
Requirements for establishing cottage food operations vary widely by state, but all are significantly less onerous than operating a certified commercial kitchen.
Our analysis revealed that as of September 1, 2017, only eight states require cottage food operations to obtain a license or permit before commencing operation, and just 15 states require some form of training before cottage foods may be produced and sold. Further, 17 states exempt cottage food operations from state inspections.
One way state legislators have sought to protect consumers, while still allowing the sale of cottage foods is to require cottage food makers to affix labels to their products informing consumers that such products are made in kitchens not subject to the strict regulations placed on restaurants by the health department or similar agency. Thirty-nine states have such labeling requirements. Additionally, 23 states have sales limits on cottage food operations, typically in the form of gross annual sales (e.g., $25,000 in gross annual sales), after which the producer no longer qualifies as a cottage food operation.
As with any public health-focused law, continued research and evaluation are necessary to understand the impact these laws may have on foodborne illness and overall health.