Cottage food law not the answer to small-farm woes
The UC small farm program held a series of two-day workshops around California to outline the provisions of the new law. Shermain Hardesty, UC Cooperative Extension specialist, was the coordinator and an instructor for the series. The class was popular, but many of the farming participants found that the letter of the law tended to hinder their creativity rather than open new business avenues.
Hardesty said the Homemade Food Act (AB 1616) was designed to, among other things, help farming families take their surplus produce and make dried products, jams, jellies and butters. However, the California Department of Public Health is requiring cottage food operators to do all of their processing in their home kitchen, to comply with the Statutory Provisions Related to Sanitary and Preparation Requirements for Cottage Food Operations (Excerpts from the California Health and Safety (H&S Code, including H&S 113980 Requirements for Food), specifically, the CDPH requires that cottage food operators comply with the following operational requirements:
"All food contact surfaces, equipment, and utensils used for the preparation, packaging, or handling of any cottage food products shall be washed, rinsed, and sanitized before each use. All food preparation and food and equipment storage areas shall be maintained free of rodents and insects."
Cutting fruit and laying it in the sun to dry, for example, is not permitted. For jams and jellies, the law stipulates sugar-to-fruit ratios that require more sugar than fruit. For some cooks, the rules defeat the unique character of their homemade, gourmet products.
“I really try not to put a lot of sugar in my jellies. I want it to taste like fruit,” said farmer Annie Main, who took the UC class.
Main and her husband Jeff run an organic fruit, vegetable, flower and herb operation on 20 acres in the Capay Valley of Yolo County.
“I've been doing value-added for 20 years,” Main said. “In the '90s, I started making jams and jellies in a rented certified kitchen. But it's a trek to get labor, jars, supplies and fruit to the restaurant kitchen after hours and then work till midnight. We thought with the new law, I could do it in my own kitchen, which would be fabulous.”
However, she found that the rules of the law are so restrictive as to be prohibitive.
“Farmers in the class were asked whether the law extended their ability for economic return on their products. Every single one shook their heads,” Main said. “The new law doesn't help us at all.”
Hardesty said there may be other options for these producers to process and sell their foods. She is planning to offer another class this fall, “Cottage Food Plus,” to help growers find workable mechanisms for selling their food.
“They may be able to use a co-packer to do the processing or a commercial kitchen or become registered as a processing food facility,” Hardesty said.