Tea Party Jam: “cottage cooks” win one

Most people might not have noticed but Californians just won control of their own kitchens – a wonderful victory for the little guys.

Governor Jerry Brown signed AB1616 in September 2012, allowing the “cottage food industry” to create and sell goods, removing layers of red tape that have given large companies a monopoly on food production for years. California joins 30 other states that have passed similar laws.

It’s the “slow food revolution” meets the Tea Party. Pass the scones — with homemade jam — and let’s celebrate!

Why is this such a big win?

Let me explain. I have a wonderful lemon tree out front and live in a neighborhood full of citrus and fruit trees, an embarrassment of riches. So, with my neighbors’ blessing, I use some of this bounty to make jams, marmalades (lemon/lime/kumquat) and citrus curds

I dreamed of selling my own selection of four citrus curds in delicious flavors — lime, orange, lemon and grapefruit — all from fruit culled from trees within walking distance of my house.

So, I explored the usual: jar designs, labels, marketing, company names, rules and regulations, markets. 

The farmers’ markets seemed perfect for selling my product. Silly me. Not so. Farmers’ markets are “certified” farmers’ markets. One must be certified as a farmer to sell there. What is a farmer? A farmer actually grows the raw material used in the value added product. I am not a farmer so I can’t get certified. I own less than a third of an acre and have a couple of trees. While I have lots of lemons year round, I rely on my neighbors’ surplus fruit for oranges, limes and grapefruit. This disqualifies me so I can’t sell at a certified farmers’ market. It’s a closed shop.

Hmmm. OK, not insurmountable. I can build other markets.

Layers of rules and regs

So next I looked into the health and food handling rules and regulations. Under current law, I can’t use my home kitchen to cook the product. I have to get rid of the family pets and spend a fortune to build an industrial kitchen in the house.

Since this is clearly not an option, I would have to cook the product in an industrial kitchen at a cost of $25 per hour, provide insurance for the time I’m in that kitchen and provide proof that I have completed an onerous food safety (HACCP) program. More time, more money.

And I’d have to cart all my supplies and ingredients to and from the industrial kitchen and make very large batches of my product to keep my time and expenses low. This means I’d have to sell my car and buy a truck just to schlep everything back and forth to the industrial kitchen.

Oh, come on. The mark up on food is pretty small to begin with so I can see already that I’m not going to make a dime on this project. I’d simply be subsidizing sales from my own bank account and I am not interested in doing that.

In a nutshell, if I comply with the law as currently written, it’s impossible to cook jam in my own kitchen and sell it to my own neighbors.

Addressing risk via layers of bureaucracy or via free markets

This huge government bureaucracy is designed to protect people from the tiny risk related to them eating my jam — but only if they pay for the jam. If I give it to them for free, there is no protection whatsoever. Odd, isn’t it?

I could address this tiny risk via the free market by adding a binder to my insurance policy. Everyone could be covered, whether they pay for the jam or not. Real data would most likely show this to be a tiny, tiny risk so the premium would be very inexpensive. That’s the free market solution. But it’s not an option in California. California, like other states, loves its massive bureaucrazy.

Dreams of jam dashed

So my dreams of making a little money from curds, jams and marmalades evaporated – until now.

The passage of AB1616 gives me hope that I, and lots of other cooks,  might actually be given control of our kitchens again.

The law went into effect January of 2013. I can’t wait to see what happens. Might we have access to new and wonderful foods made with love in California – if cottage cooks can figure out where and how to sell it, beyond the certified farmers’ markets which will still be off-limits to cottage cooks?

I’ll be looking into the online marketplace soon. And what about you? What will you be cooking up in your kitchen? I look forward to hearing from you! 

(Updated from a posting originally published September 22, 2012.)

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