Are you a wicked candy and gingerbread cook who’s ever wondered whether you can sell your homemade treats? The answer is, “Yes, you can”, and you don’t need a hideout in the woods to do it. With a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit, you can start a food business out of your very own kitchen. Washington State “permits” direct-to-consumer sales of certain foods made in your home kitchen under its Cottage Food Laws.
Generally, prepared foods sold to the public have to be made in an inspected and approved commercial kitchen, and for good reason—all of us want to be sure the food we eat is safe to consume. Problems in the production of commercially available food can affect a lot of people, and the consequences can be severe. Even if no one gets sick, as consumers we want confidence that our food and the kitchen where it was made are clean and sanitary.
Commercial kitchens, though, are expensive. Because of this, a lot of good ideas never get fully baked. Washington State recognizes that small food businesses are worth the effort and that with some flexibility, food safety laws can ameliorate concerns. Kelly Damewood, in an opinion column for Food Safety News, explains, “Cottage food laws are designed to give the small guys a break.” Washington State has a robust set of Cottage Food Laws that do just that while also addressing food safety.
Let’s start with your ideas. What foods can your Cottage Food Business produce? It’s a pretty big list:
- Baked goods and fried products, including breads, cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, cereals, granola, pies, snack mixes, even donuts (mmm, donuts!);
- candies, chocolates, fudge, caramels, brittles, and taffy;
- Jams, jellies, preserves, and fruit butter;
- Vinegars and flavored vinegars;
- Recombined and packaged dry herbs, seasoning and mixtures.
There are some things you just can’t make, including:
- Fresh or dried meat, poultry, or fish, including jerky (this includes meat, poultry, or fish products);
- Canned fruits, vegetables, vegetable butters, salsas, etc.;
- Canned pickled products such as corn relish, pickles, sauerkraut;
- Raw seed sprouts;
- Bakery items that need refrigeration;
- Milk and dairy products;
- Cut fresh fruits or vegetables, or products made from cut fresh fruits or vegetables (anytime you cut a fruit or vegetable, it is much more susceptible to food borne hazards);
- Fruit and vegetable juices;
- Garlic in oil mixtures;
- Ice or ice products;
- Barbecue sauces, ketchups, mustards;
- Focaccia-style breads with veggies or cheeses;
The Washington State Department of Agriculture regulates Cottage Food Businesses here in the Evergreen State. And yes, you will need a permit, which costs $230 and requires that you jump through some hoops. If you get frustrated jumping through these hoops, remember that not every State allows cottage food operations, including neighboring Idaho. (For en excellent review and discussion, please see a report by Alli Condra, former Clinical Fellow in the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic AND my friend and classmate, “Cottage Food Laws in the United States”.) You may obtain the Cottage Food Operation Permit Application Packet online or by contacting the WA Department of Ag at (360) 902-1876 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To obtain a permit, you’ll need to prove your water supply is safe, either by testing your private well or showing a water bill for your public water supply at your home. You will need a Food Worker Card and a Business License. You have to submit a floor plan showing the location of your food prep equipment, work surfaces, sinks, dishwashers, and your toilet. If you have pets or kids, your floor plan will need to include pet and child areas or gates. Yes, you need to share your secret recipe listing all the ingredients and instructions, but this need not be overwhelming, just a recipe like you’d find on any recipe card. Tap into your creative side with your labels, but keep in mind that they need to be easy to read, must show the name of your Cottage Food Business, your kitchen address, the name of your product, an ingredient list in order by weight of every ingredient actually in the product, a list of included allergens, the net weight, and this statement: “Made in a home kitchen that has not been subject to a standard inspection criteria.”
You will also need to explain how you process and package your product, list the equipment, utensils, and product contact surfaces, including the scale you use. The WA Department of Agriculture suggests using a flow diagram for each recipe to make sure you capture every step of your process. You must explain how the equipment, utensils, and food contact surfaces will be cleaned and sanitized and how often. And here’s something you might not have thought about but need to include—what’s your plan for cleaning the floors, walls, and ceilings? Don’t forget to include your processing dates, either. Finally, you need to explain your sales plan. Sales may only be in Washington State and may not include consignment or wholesale. Internet sales and delivery or pick-up are allowed, but the product must be delivered in-person, from the permit holder to the consumer. Delivery by mail or courier is prohibited.
Whew, that seems like a lot! It’s really not, though; you’re simply being asked to write down the steps you take so someone else can review them. It’s worth taking these steps to reduce the risk of injury to someone from consuming food. It also makes good business sense to think things through and commit your ideas to pen and paper.
There are lots of great resources to support you, too. The folks at the WA Department of Agriculture are awesome. I’ve met a lot of them and I assure you, they will do their very best to assist and answer your questions. You can find nearby, like-minded folks through Meetup. And we at Foundry Law Group can help, too.