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Why Health Departments Hate Cottage Food Laws

Imagine this: you’re running a childcare center for toddlers and you have way too much to do every single day. Cooking, cleaning, checking up on the kids, and always keeping an eye on them to make sure they stay safe. The truth is, the childcare association has given you way too many kids to take care of, and when a problem inevitably arises, people blame you. But at least you try your best.

Then one day, the childcare association says that they want to add some babies to the facility. And not only that, they expect the number of babies to grow over time. “Who will watch and take care of the babies?” you ask. They say, “We expect you to. Is that a problem?”

Yes, it is absolutely a problem! You will find any manner of excuse to prevent this whole baby idea from occurring. You might point out that babies don’t know what they’re doing and could hurt themselves, or worse, could hurt others. You challenge the association: “Do you really want to be responsible when these babies hurt someone?”

As a result, everyone starts to realize that you really hate babies. But truthfully, you really want them to have access to childcare, and you know that they are unlikely to hurt anyone. After all, child development is what you do — you want them to have a supportive environment where they can grow and succeed. What you really hate is the idea that you’re going to have be responsible for every one of these newcomers. Your impossible job is about to get even more impossible.

The Problem

Cottage food operations often get frustrated by health (or ag) departments: they can be slow, uncommunicative, and sometimes downright unfriendly toward CFOs. They often offer little to no online resources about the cottage food law, and when someone calls them to ask for more info, they may not even be familiar with it! As a result, some people complain about the government, claiming that they don’t do anything.

Most health departments are supposed to inspect every single food establishment in their area once a year (sometimes more often), and that is only one of their responsibilities. They have no budget to increase their staff. In reality, many departments can’t even get around to all of their inspections in one year, or they have to cut corners.

Just think about it: a health inspector is already behind schedule and they’re figuring out when they can inspect yet another restaurant that grosses $30K of food sales each week. And then you come along with your business idea to sell cupcakes at the farmers market this summer. On one hand, it’s their job to answer your questions and approve you; on another, they have bigger fish to fry.

Learning A Lesson From Idaho

After communicating with a food safety expert in Idaho, it seems that the Idaho health districts know that low-risk (cottage) foods are safe. For years, they have been allowing these foods to be sold at farmers markets with very little government intervention. Earlier this year, a bill was drafted to codify their longtime practice and make it a law, which they supported.

That’s when the NWFPA stepped in to express their concern about the new bill. They stated that it was too unrestricted and suggested that CFO registration, inspection, and training be implemented, like other states. And by “other states”, they probably meant Idaho’s neighbor, Washington, which has one of the most restrictive cottage food laws in the country — the NWFPA was also involved in the implementation of that law. They probably didn’t mean another Idaho neighbor, Wyoming, which doesn’t even restrict direct sales of high-risk foods.

Due to the NWFPA’s recommendations, the original bill was replaced with a new one that had all of these requirements added, but without any additional resources to help the health districts enact them. Consequently, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare dropped their support and instead opposed the bill. The health districts wanted people to directly sell their low-risk homemade foods, but they knew that they didn’t have the resources to manage registration and inspection for even more businesses, nor did they deem that necessary anyway.

The Solution

It’s no wonder that health departments openly oppose cottage food bills before they get passed. Many have even made registration overly burdensome to discourage people from using a cottage food law. And in the states that allow it, some departments have simply disallowed CFOs in their area altogether.

Health departments don’t need to have the responsibility of managing low-risk foods. Their job is to protect the public health, but cottage foods are, by their very nature, already safe to being with. Although the health department should be available to respond to food safety concerns, problems in this industry are exceedingly rare… I still have not heard of one health complaint against any CFO in the country.

In an ideal world, selling low-risk, homemade food wouldn’t require any intervention from the health department. But for the time being, the health or ag dept is something most CFOs have to deal with. At the very least, maybe we can understand some of their frustrations and bring a little bit of patience and possibility into their impossible workday.