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Researching Your State’s Cottage Food Law

Update Cottage Food Law Form
Screenshot of form for updating a cottage food law on Forrager

Have you ever wondered how I organize all of the law information on Forrager behind the scenes? How do I choose the grade (or color) for a state on the map?

Actually, this website calculates the grade automatically, and it uses specially-formatted data that I enter into a form. Recently, I added a feature to this site that allows you to access that same form to update your state’s cottage food law information.

Go check out the “last updated” date at the bottom of your state’s law page: is it over a year old? Sometimes, it is old because the law simply hasn’t changed (hello Rhode Island), and sometimes — let’s be honest! — it is due to my ignorance/neglect.

This post will help you find updated information about your state’s law, and will give you more information about the process I go through to keep this website updated. If you learn something about your law along the way, please consider sharing your knowledge with the community (anything helps) by using this form.

Types of resources

Online resources support every piece of information on Forrager’s law pages. You can find links to this information in the Resources section at the bottom of any law page.

As you do research, you should be aware that some resources are better than others. Here are the most common types of resources listed on law pages, in order of preference:

Bill or law text

  • Nothing is more important than the law’s language. I always read it first when adding information to a law page on Forrager, and I read it very thoroughly.
  • Sometimes a bill has multiple versions, so I always make sure to find the latest version.
  • Sometimes the legalese is difficult to understand and/or ambiguous, so I make a note of those sections and hope to clarify them with other resources.

Government websites & documents

  • Information from a government department (typically the state health or ag department) can be hit or miss. Sometimes it is very complete, sometimes it is non-existent. Even when it does exist, sometimes it’s difficult to find the relevant page on the government website.
  • However, if information from the government does exist, it is almost as important as the law itself. Laws are often intentionally ambiguous, and rely on the health department’s interpretation for enforcing them, so published information from the government entity is usually invaluable for gaining clarity about the law.
  • Sometimes the information from the government is so complete and well-maintained, that I do not need any other resources for the law. On the flip-side, sometimes the government creates a site and then neglects it, eventually becoming outdated.
  • Sometimes governmental departments update their website and do not correctly redirect old links to the new pages (resulting in a broken link). In those cases, I use the name of the link along with the specific site to do a Google search, like this: “site:www.ag.utah.gov ‘Guidelines For Home Food Production'”.

Websites dedicated to a state’s law

  • When bills are created, sometimes a website is created to inform people about the new bill/law. Usually the bill’s authors start these sites.
  • One of the best examples of this is texascottagefoodlaw.com, which was created by Kelley Masters, one of the authors of Texas’ first cottage food law. Information on that website is often more complete and up-to-date than Texas Health Department’s own site.
  • Sometimes you need to be a little wary of sites like these, as they may advocate a looser interpretation of the law than the health department supports. But when these sites exist, they can be a very strong resource.

Facebook pages and groups

  • When bills are created, sometimes a Facebook page or group is created for the new bill/law. Usually the bill’s authors start these pages/groups.
  • When they exist and are active, Facebook pages/groups can often be the most up-to-date resources available. They can also be very accurate, since they rely on the community to support them.
  • Although I rarely use them as a primary resource, I often use Facebook pages/groups to verify what I read or learned from the resources above. Sometimes people will use the group to share their experience starting their business, which helps validate the published information.

News & media stories

  • When a bill gets passed, there is often news coverage about the bill. Sometimes these stories are the first published info about the bill (aside from the bill text itself).
  • I rarely use news articles/videos as a primary source, even though they are typically reliable. The main reason for this is because their information is usually not original, since it’s often based on what’s available online.
  • Often the news coverage comes when a bill is introduced or passed by one of the legislative houses, which can be misleading. Simply being “passed” doesn’t mean “passed into law”, and even when something is passed into law, it can take awhile (months, sometimes years) for it to go into effect. News stories often gloss over the fact that a bill has a few more hoops to jump through before becoming a law.

Add info as you go

This applies to all of the steps below. I do not do research and then start placing the information from my head into Forrager. In most cases, that would be impossible for me.

Instead, when I find something that should be added or changed to the law, I add it to the form immediately. Later on, I might learn more and change it on the form, but I always record the information I have at the time.

Without further ado, here are the general steps that you should take to research and update a law. If it is a new bill or law, skip Steps 1 and 2.

1. Read the law page on Forrager

Even I do this when starting out, though I already have a decent understanding of every state’s law.

I go to the state’s law page and read through it to understand what is already there. I try to get it all in my head, so that when I research and read other information, I can make mental notes of differences that don’t already exist on Forrager.

2. Click the links in the Resources section of the law page

As mentioned in the “Types of resources” section above, the information on Forrager is supported by online resources, which are listed at the bottom of every law page.

Before doing new online research, I look at the existing links to see if they have updated information. Sometimes the links are broken, which may indicate that the linked information is no longer relevant.

3. Look up the new bill/law text

For an existing law, Step 2 should have exposed a wealth of information — possibly enough to fully update the law with no additional research.

However, when a law is outdated, it is typically because a new bill or law has been put into place. Sometimes the bill hasn’t become a law yet, but I still like to update the law page with information about prospective bills.

In this case, the first step is to find the legal text of the bill/law. Usually this is fairly easy, but not always. Most states have a website for the legislature that publishes and tracks a bill’s progress as it moves through the legislative process.

If I know the bill’s name, I will do a Google search for that. Here are some example bill names: CA AB 1616 or TX SB 81 (Assembly Bill or Senate Bill). Sometimes bills have two names, one for each of the houses, even though they are identical. The Google search will usually surface the bill’s webpage as the first search result, but I always check that it is the state legislature’s website, and that the bill is in the current year (sometimes Google links to bills from previous years, especially when the current bill is very new). Be aware that there are bill aggregators, like LegiScan, that do not represent the source information; occasionally they are helpful, but I usually skip them.

Even after a bill has become law, the legislature’s website is usually the easiest place to find the text for a law. It can take many months for a state to update the legal codes on their online systems. Even when they do, the relevant text is often dispersed among tons of other legal texts. However, when I can find the actual law/codes/statutes, can find/understand where the cottage food law fits into it all, and can easily link directly to it, I will use that over the bill text.

4. Search government websites

When I know which department is responsible for maintaining the resources for the cottage food law, I will target my search specifically to that site at first.

For instance, if I am researching New Mexico, I know that the resources will likely be on their Environment Department’s website, so I start all Google searches with “site:www.env.nm.gov”. This is often easier and more accurate than using the search features within the government websites themselves.

Since I know that New Mexico refers to their cottage food operations as Home-Based Food Processors, a search like “site:www.env.nm.gov home-based” should yield good results.

5. Do a Google search for the law

By this point, sometimes I have all I need to know, and sometimes, I don’t have any information at all! But even when it’s the former, I will run some Google searches to try to find more information. These are the most common ones I try:

  • [State name] [Bill/law name]
  • [State name] “cottage food”
  • [State name] “homemade food”
  • [State name] “home food”
  • [State name] cottage food
  • [State name] homemade food

Additionally, if I know that a state has their own term for cottage food, I will use that. For instance, I would search “Pennsylvania “limited food establishment”“.

As you can see, I always start with very specific terms in quotes. Placing “cottage food” in quotes is usually necessary to get accurate results, but sometimes such a specific search will yield almost no results. In that case, I get progressively more generic with the searches by removing words and quotes, looking for anything relevant.

These searches often lead to many useful resources, whether they are websites, Facebook groups, news articles, forums, or other updates that people have shared somewhere online.

6. Contact a government department

If I can’t find enough information using the above, sometimes the only way to get answers is to contact the relevant department(s) directly. Sometimes the Resources section on a law page already lists the correct contact info.

Admittedly, sometimes this is a painful process. I usually email them if possible, since I’ve found that they prefer responding when it’s convenient to them. But sometimes, calling is the best (and only) way.

When someone responds, you might find that they don’t know much (or anything) about the law. In this case, try to get the contact info for someone who does know about the law. There is usually at least one government worker in the state who closely dealt with passing the bill, and can answer most questions.

In some cases, there is no answer to a question. Either the health department hasn’t decided on an interpretation of the law, and/or it is something that gets decided on a more local (county/city) level. For instance, you might be wondering if you can list truffles as an allowed food. There might not actually be anyone in the world who can answer that, because it hasn’t been decided yet.

Occasionally, the department won’t respond to your efforts to contact them, so it may be best to move on.

7. Search the state legislature’s bills

This is truly a last resort, but in rare cases it has worked for me. When I have heard from someone (usually the bill’s author, via a comment on Forrager) that there’s a new bill in a state, but cannot find information about it online, I will go to the legislature’s website and try to find the list of all of the bills in the current legislative session.

Sometimes there are hundreds of bills. Since there are so many bills created in each legislative session, this information gets lost in the sea of other Google search results.

When looking at the list, I will search it if I can (Ctrl-F) with words like “home” and “food”. Or if I can’t search it for some reason, I will quickly look through it.

I can remember a few times when I thought I had exhausted all resources, and that no such bill existed, and then found it this way. It feels like finding a needle in a haystack, but it’s exciting when you find it!

8. Give up

You might be surprised at this addition, but it is one I’ve used many times.

Sometimes, there either is no bill/law, or there is no information about it online. This is especially true for smaller landlocked states.

Conclusion

If you follow all of the steps above, you should be able to access a wealth of information about a bill or law. Along the way, please consider sharing your knowledge by updating your state’s law.

The process of thoroughly researching a state’s law can be laborious, but when it is in a condensed, easy-to-read form, it helps the thousands of people who visit Forrager each month.

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