Evan Kleiman with Karen Morgan Newe and Richard Sanchez of the OC Health Care Agency
Evan Kleiman with Karen Morgan Newe and Richard Sanchez of the OC Health Care Agency

KCRW's Cottage Food Act Panel Discussion: What We Learned

Have you ever thought of making a business out your homemade muffins, granola, or bitters? California's Homemade Food Act took effect January 1, which allows cottage food producers a legal pathway to sell certain foods produced in a home kitchen. Until this law passed, it was illegal to sell your brownies unless you baked them in a commercial kitchen that was subject to the same sanitation standards as a restaurant's.

KCRW's Evan Kleiman hosted a standing-room-only panel discussion in downtown SanTana yesterday to present the fundamentals of this nascent law. Karen Morgan Newe and Richard Sanchez of the Orange County Health Care Agency were on hand to answer questions from 100-plus in attendance (they had to close the doors, so many people tried to go in), many of whom were already selling home-made goods sub-rosa.

The new law allows home cooks to sell certain foods on an approved whitelist maintained by the California Department of Public Health. "Non-potentially hazardous foods" is health department lingo for foods that can be left out at room temperature with a low risk of propagating bacteria and viruses that lead to food poisoning.

The law is full of food-safety vernacular, and the panelists did a commendable job in explaining their jargon in laymen's terms. The whitelist is dynamic and is expected to grow dramatically as entrepreneurs appeal to the CDPH to add more items.

The law cuts red tape for small businesses, but the Department of Public Health won't whitelist food items that might cause people to fall ill. Neither is it going to approve foods that require oversight from other agencies. So that homemade beef jerky you want to sell? Can't sell it unless it's made in a U.S.D.A.-inspected facility. The lemons you turned into limoncello? That still requires a license from the state's Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control.

The law is written to apply uniformly throughout the state, but it's apparent that old bureaucratic turf wars die hard. Each local public health care agency oversees cottage food businesses in its jurisdiction. So an Orange County-based business is allowed to sell within OC, but not in neighboring L.A. County, even though the same legislation and standard of care applies state-wide. But the OC health department will allow L.A. cottage producers to sell here, because such decisions are still made on a local level. Confusing? You bet it is.

Home-based food operators must also pass a basic food-safety training course, currently the same four-hour class that every restaurant employee must pass. The problem is such courses teach the general practices of a restaurant kitchen, such as holding cooked foods above 141 F degrees until it's served. Those courses don't teach safe food-handling practices specific to operations like hot-canning, which requires sterilization of jarred foods at considerably higher temperatures.

With people packing a small theater to capacity, it's clear that producers want guidance about the new law from the government overseers. It's equally clear that the health care agencies need to learn about food preparation practices with which they have no prior experience.

The new law presents a learning curve for all parties, and many major issues like the intra-county sales and the list of approved foods will continue to be hashed out. In Orange County, at least, we have proactive program administrators willing to get in front of this issue, and navigate the new food landscape in partnership with local entrepreneurs. Keep it tuned here on SaFII as we report on developments in this new law.

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