Editor's Plate: Colorado's Cottage Foods Act

Is it an incubator for entrepreneurship or a recipe for disaster?

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

In these days of heightened food safety sensitivity and growing power of government regulators, it's curious to see Colorado just passed a "Cottage Foods Act," which will relieve tiny food-makers of the responsibilities heaped onto larger food processors.

I'll say at the outset, I haven't made up my mind if the bill is good or bad; but I think it's worth debating in a larger, national forum.

As the name implies, the new law is intended to enable more home-kitchen startups. The ultimate goals are new businesses, employment, delightful new food products and an appreciation for locally produced food – all wonderful things, especially in current times. But home kitchens also may have dogs and cats, flies and rodents and refrigerators and ovens that don't work perfectly.

The key terms used in the act are "nonpotentially hazardous foods," "home kitchens" (although it also allows the use of commercial kitchens) and "direct to consumers."

Those "nonpotentially hazardous foods" are specified as ones that don't require refrigeration and "are limited to spices, teas, dehydrated produce, nuts, seeds, honey, jams, jellies, preserves, fruit butter and baked goods, including candies."

The act also requires "a producer must be certified in safe food handling and processing by a third-party certifying entity, comparable to and including the United States Department of Agriculture or the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service… including attending any classes required for certification."

And it requires labeling. Even homemade food items must carry the producer's telephone number and email address, along with a list of ingredients. Residences where retail homemade food is produced must be covered by home bakery liability insurance.

The intent is clear enough. It shields everything from cookies baked for the glee club fund raiser to small businesses that are just starting out – but are still selling direct to consumers from their own locations, roadside stands and, with a little extra registration, off premises.

Rep. Laura Bradford, who introduced the bill, was quoted in local media as saying people starting up businesses in their home kitchens should not be hindered by excessive rules. She said she launched her own business from her kitchen 27 years ago and doesn't think she could have succeeded under current rules. She said today's cottage cooks "want the same opportunity."

The Colorado general assembly thinks the act will:

  • Facilitate greater access to markets and consumers for small, local producers of fresh and value-added foods.
  • Foster direct connections between people and local producers.
  • Support economic development and agritourism in Colorado – ultimately leadng to new jobs.
  • Increase the self-reliance of Colorado communities.

I learned this is not novel. At least 18 states have enacted similar "cottage food laws."

Supporters on Facebook and Twitter played roles in rallying support and lobbying local representatives to get the act passed. So I looked on Facebook for some of the dialog over the act and came upon this bubbly missive from a home baker:

"Just created my website! I am so excited to be able to do this! Check it out! www.avasweetcakes.com." On her site, she explains: "Hi I'm Mande Gabelson, Cake Artist and owner of Ava Sweet Cakes LLC. I create custom cakes, and gourmet cupcakes. It is my goal to put a smile on the face of every customer and to fill every pie hole with beautiful and delicious cake! … I started Ava Sweet Cakes LLC in February 2010 naming it after my daughter. I offer something different, something unique, something sweet, and something that is definitely art in an edible form!"

It's hard to criticize that kind of enthusiasm. There are numerous similar stories in the history books of even the billion-dollar food companies. If rules and enforcement were as tough then as they are now, should Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton have been allowed to mix some caramel-colored syrup with carbonated water (hint: that's the Coca-Cola's story)? Would the creations of Mama Celeste or Marie Callender ever made it out of their kitchens?

On the other hand is Dennis McFerrin, who operates Kitchen Network (www.kitchennetworkdenver.com), a contract manufacturer and commissary in Denver. His business admittedly relies on startups, trial runs and smaller restaurants using the facility – inspected by FDA, USDA and the Colorado Dept. of Health – to safely and legally make small batches of food products.

"People walk in with Grandma's recipe, and we turn it into a food product," he told me.

He's concerned about the food safety aspects. "There will be hundreds of households making thousands of products with no inspections," he says. "And the whole point of this law is they're no longer doing this for fun, they're starting a business. These people want to make a living at this.

"I feel it's taking the food industry backward a few steps. And the sad part is, it probably won't get the attention it deserves until someone gets very ill – or worse."

That's an extreme but entirely possible outcome. Food for thought, as they say. The entire food industry and Washington should keep on eye on what happens in Colorado.