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Starting A Cottage Food Operation – Health / Ag Departments

A state’s cottage food law is usually the responsibility of either the health or ag department. Many states require some form of license, permit, inspection, or training from one of these departments. Other states (like Florida) have no such requirements, and a few states (like Texas) actually prohibit the health or ag department from regulating a CFO that abides by the law.

Requirements from these departments are often mandated by the state, but sometimes counties and even cities will impose their own requirements. In California, the requirements between counties can vary greatly. And then there are cases like Illinois’ Home Kitchen Operation law, which actually requires health departments to adopt a local ordinance before the law can be used (which most of their counties have not done).

Direct Contact

Unsurprisingly, you have to contact the health or ag department directly to figure out what applies to you. And because these departments are often understaffed and super busy (they have the impossible task of keeping the entire food supply safe!), it can sometimes require some patience when dealing with them. Try contacting them via email first, and then try the phone, and make sure to give them at least two weeks to respond.

Start Small

Usually you should start by reaching out to your local health or ag department. Workers at the local level may be totally unaware that it is possible for you to sell homemade food, but there should be someone in your state who is knowledgeable about it. Sometimes these contacts are listed in the “Resources” section of your state’s law page. As you need more information, feel free to work your way up the chain to the state health or ag department.

A Surprising Fact

Many times, the answer to your question or circumstance does not yet exist. You might ask them, “How do I do _______?”, and they may simply not know because nobody’s ever done it before. This is one of the side effects of dealing with very new laws and a new industry. You can try moving up to the state level, but you might need to press them to make an interpretation of the law. At some point, you may even need to simply make an educated guess and move forward without complete information.

Staying Informed and Legal

In most states, the health or ag department has the ability to restrict or prohibit your business, so you usually need to adhere to anything they require. However, if they have a requirement that is explicitly contradicted in your state’s cottage food law, then you can challenge their interpretation. A governmental department is tasked with enforcing the laws, not making their own laws, so you may need to keep them in check to ensure that they are not being overly restrictive.

Most health and ag departments will be more than supportive and helpful in getting your food business off the ground. However, sometimes these departments do not agree with their state’s cottage food law, because they are concerned about the lack of food safety controls in a home kitchen environment. Generally, health and ag departments have final say about what your business can do, but if any of their requirements seem unreasonable, please ask about it in Forrager’s community.

Comments

I am getting a permit to sell and sample homemade brownies, sold unwrapped. My permit requires hand wash sink.
Can I use portable sink?
Also, do I have to label unwrapped food?

    I do not know the requirements, but I think most vendors use portable handwashing stations. You shouldn’t have to label unwrapped food, but you should have a labeled product for customers to look at. You should contact the dept that issued the permit and ask them about the sink.

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