Unregulated foods safer than you might think

By on April 3rd, 2012

A Florida law passed last year is making it easier for residents to turn their love of baking or cooking into a small business. The Cottage Food Law enables people to sell small food goods directly to consumers without food safety regulations. But is it safe? Florida’s 89.1, WUFT-FM’s Brittany Wienke reports.

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Wednesdays are busy days for baker Sarah West. She makes delicate French cookies called macarons and sells them at the Union Square farmer’s market in downtown Gainesville. She started her bakery, called Lark, about six months ago as a cottage food operation. She says getting that designation took the same amount of work as filing for a small business license.

“The only difference is that we don’t have to be certified in certain ways and we really have to be specific about our labeling of all of our food and say that it is prepared in a kitchen that is not been certified as food safe.”

In other words, West bakes her cookies at home and sells them directly to consumers without any kind of food safety regulation from the state of Florida.

The Cottage Food Law passed with a unanimous vote in the Florida legislature last year, permitting cottage food operations to sell things like honeys, jams, dried herbs, breads, and fruit pies directly to consumers from their homes, a roadside stand, or at farmer’s markets.

But how safe is cottage food?

Department of Agriculture Food Safety analyst Dan Hixon says it’s as safe as the person’s home.

“I mean it’s basically as safe as the operator’s home business that they’re operating out of, which we do not provide for any direct oversight or regulatory responsibilities.”

Which means that something could go wrong: raw food could be handled without gloves, or food could be refrigerated incorrectly. But Brenda Williams with Alachua County’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences Extension Office says the goods cottage food perations are allowed to make are already pretty safe.

“In opening up this avenue for individuals to sell their homemade products was to select categories that they felt there was kind of already a built in safety component. So about the only bacterial growth we might get would be a yeast or a mold, which usually we can see, taste, smell, so people aren’t going to consume it.”

Besides that, West says cottage food operators really care about their products. Even if they’re not food safety certified, she says, they do their research.

“I think most people do their homework, since this is still a labor-intensive operation, it’s something that people have to do a lot of research to set up.”

If a consumer does find something wrong with their cottage food product, he or she can complain to the Department of Agriculture, and they’ll send a food inspector to take a look at the operator’s home. Hixon with the Department of Agriculture says that since the law went into effect last July, there have been two complaints, neither of them serious.

And unlike food you’d get in a restaurant, cottage food operators have to put every single ingredient on their labels, so you know exactly what’s in the food you’re buying. For many cottage food operators, like West, a little stand at a farmer’s market is just the starting point.

“My husband and I have long desired to have a bakery of our own. In the meantime, we have a little baby, and we’ll see where taking care of him goes, and what our schedules look like, but one day we’d really like it to be a bakery, and in the meantime, getting our name out there and getting people to know about us, and growing little by little.”

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