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Cottage food lawsuit filed in Minnesota, but will it work?

A couple bakers in Minnesota, along with the Institute of Justice, have just taken the state’s Department of Agriculture by surprise. As part of IJ’s Food Freedom Initiative, they are filing a lawsuit that is designed to question the very premise of the cottage food law in Minnesota. But in the bigger picture, they are also questioning the framework that is at the core of almost every cottage food law in the United States.

The lawsuit, entitled “Jane Astramecki v. Minnesota Department of Agriculture“, is focused on improving Minnesota’s cottage food law, which is currently one of the most restrictive cottage food laws in the country. Earlier this year, some individuals tried to change that by going the normal route and passing an amendment through legislation, but it failed. Now, a couple bakers are so fed up, they are trying something different. This is the first-ever lawsuit that is trying to improve a cottage food law.

The lawsuit points out that home bakers can’t even sell from home, and they also can make a maximum of $96 per week. Similar to many cottage food laws, the one in MN is intended to help cooks test their business concept, rather than actually use their home kitchen for a full-time business. These limitations ensure the business stays small so that the vast majority of food businesses go the standard route of using a commercial kitchen to produce all their food. But the lawsuit claims that they can’t do that.

According to the suit, entrepreneurs in Minnesota are protected and must have the right to earn an honest living. They are saying that the cottage food law is unreasonable and there is no good reason behind the purpose of the limitations, aside from cutting out competition from established food businesses. However, if the Department of Agriculture can prove that the cottage food law is purposefully not intended for full-time food businesses, because of a safety concern, they could win the case.

What is my take on all of this? First of all, I think it’s good that these bakers and IJ are trying something new. The limitations of some cottage food laws have gotten pretty ridiculous, and something needs to be done in these states. However, I’m not a big fan of the fighting stance which is trying to prove that the government is evil. In most cases, these departments are just trying to be safe.

I do think this is the first time a cottage food law has ever been in jeopardy of degrading. Even though the lawsuit is intended to eliminate the restrictions, it’s possible they will do the opposite and still win the case (I think this is a small possibility). How so? Say the case is decided in favor of IJ and they do prove that the ag dept has no right to limit an entrepreneur, as they are currently doing. Then, from a safety point of view, the ag dept could determine that eliminating the cottage food law altogether is better than expanding it. I certainly hope that wouldn’t happen as these laws do provide a palpable benefit to many individuals and their communities.

What is most interesting to me is that they are questioning the framework that almost all cottage food laws are built on. If the ag dept loses the case, and especially if this in-turn benefits the cottage food industry in MN, then this could have effects in other parts of the country. Assuming that it has an equal protection clause for entrepreneurs, almost any state could file a suit and claim that the premise of the cottage food law is not constitutional. It remains to be seen as to whether this approach in Minnesota will make a splash, or simply fall into oblivion like Minnesota’s cottage food amendment earlier this year.

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