Nearly all states require a label on cottage food products. A few states only require the product name on the label, but most require a number of elements to be present. In some cases, you may even need to place a nutrition facts panel on the label. It’s a small part of your business, but there are many things to consider when creating labels for your products.
Some states require a minimum font size on labels, but generally speaking, the label just needs to be easily readable. Make sure that the text clearly contrasts with the background (e.g. dark blue text on a white background) and try to make everything font size 10 or larger. Labels can be handwritten as long as they’re legible.
You can use one label on a product, or you can split the label up into two panels (like a front and back panel). If you split it up, the most predominant panel is known as the “principal display panel”, and it must include the product name and net weight (if your state requires the weight). The other panel is known as the “information panel”, and the rest of the label elements can be placed on either of the panels. Long ingredient lists are often relegated to the information panel.
The name of the product, also known as its “statement of identity”, usually has to include the common name of the food that you’re selling. Most types of food have standards of identity that must be considered when naming your product. For instance, if your product would classify as a jelly, you cannot label it as a jam.
However, you can still get creative when naming products, and in fact, you probably should. Sometimes a creative name can be the difference in making a sale. For instance, Lisa Kivirist (co-author of Homemade For Sale) doesn’t simply sell “pickles” at the farmers market: she sells “Pucker Ups Dill Pickles” and “Bread-and-Butter Sweet Pickles”.
If you have a business license and/or DBA, then you will use the name on that as your business name. Otherwise, you can just use your personal name.
This must be the address where the product was produced, which, in the case of a cottage food operation (CFO), would be your home address. This cannot be a PO Box. In some cases, your address may not be required if it is listed in a public directory.
The point of including the home address is to allow the health or ag department to trace an unsafe product back to where it was made, which allows them to stop a public health threat as quickly as possible. Many CFOs do not like placing their personal home address on their product labels, but in many states, this is simply one of the costs of doing business.
Although often referred to as “net weight”, some types of products (like liquids) require “net volume” instead. The net quantity needs to be listed in both US and metric units.
In some cases, you might not know the net weight of your product when you print your labels. For instance, if you are selling boxes of cupcakes, you won’t necessarily know how heavy the box will be until you fill it. In these cases, it’s a good idea to leave a blank (or partially blank) space on the printed label, and then you can handwrite the net weight when you weigh each item.
A product’s ingredients must be listed in order by weight, with the heaviest ingredients coming first. If an ingredient has sub-ingredients, those must be listed in parentheses. It isn’t always clear when a product has sub-ingredients, so make sure you check all of the product labels for the ingredients you use. For instance, “salted butter” is not sufficient; instead, you need to label salted butter like this: “butter (cream, salt)”.
There are special rules for spices, natural flavorings, and artificial colors. You can list those ingredients individually, but that’s not necessary. For instance, if the spices you use are a secret, you can simply put “spices” in the ingredients list and leave it at that. Make sure to read the rules to see which spices, natural flavorings, and artificial colors are included.
There are eight major food allergens: milk, egg, wheat, tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans, fish, & shellfish. Since most cottage food laws do not allow meat in products, the last two allergens are typically not a factor.
Some states specify exactly how allergens must be listed, but for most states, you can include them in the ingredients list and optionally add a separate statement below it. Here’s an example of a specific allergen statement: “Contains: wheat, egg, milk”. If you don’t have a separate statement, you may consider highlighting the allergens in your ingredients list.
Make sure you check the packages of the ingredients you use: sometimes allergens are present where you wouldn’t expect them. For instance, chocolate chips often contain soy lecithin.
Many cottage food laws require an additional statement on the label to inform the buyer that the product was made in a home kitchen. Sometimes these statements require all-caps or larger font sizes.
Each state’s statement is different, but most say something like this: “This product was produced in a home kitchen which was not inspected by the Department of Health”.
You are only required to place this statement on your physical product labels, but some CFOs also choose to place it on their website.
Almost all CFOs are automatically exempt from needing to include nutrition facts on their labels. For those who aren’t automatically exempt, most of those businesses are still eligible to apply for an exemption. You are not eligible for an exemption if you place a nutrient content claim or health claim on your label.
Generally speaking, if you are not required to include a nutrition facts panel, it’s best to leave it off of your labels. There are many nutrition facts calculators online, but those will only give approximate data. To get accurate nutrition fact info that meets the federal requirements, you need to have your products tested in a lab, which can get expensive and time-consuming.
If you want to put a nutrient content claim (e.g. “sugar-free” or “low fat”) or health claim (e.g. “reduces risk of heart disease”) on your label, you will need to include nutrition facts. It’s usually easier to leave these claims off the label and communicate them to customers verbally at markets.
While it might be tempting to want fancy labels for your products from the start, I recommend keeping things simple when you’re just starting out. If you try to use a company to print labels, they will likely have a minimum batch size (like 500 or more) that will make the labels expensive and inflexible. Your products will likely evolve over time, and besides, customers care more about you than your labels at a farmers market.
Many CFOs have started with basic labels created in Microsoft Word, but I’d recommend using Avery’s free label design software. The software allows you to quickly, easily, and economically design a decent label online. When your labels are ready, you can buy a pack of labels at an office supply store and print them at home.
If you plan to sell indirectly (i.e. through stores), then you might want to become more serious about getting your labels professionally designed and printed. However, I’d still recommend proving that there’s demand for your product before taking that expensive leap.
To learn more about general and federal labeling requirements, you can read this guide. Please keep in mind that most cottage food product labels do not need to meet many of the federal labeling requirements, and in some cases, a cottage food law has its own requirements that supercede the federal ones.