Will Massachusetts Make Life Sweeter for Home-Cook Entrepreneurs?

Massachusetts legislators may repeal one of America’s most severe cottage food laws.

H465, sponsored by State Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven (D–Somerville), would eliminate the state’s burdensome local permitting and home-inspection requirements, among other dramatic improvements.

Uyterhoeven along with others have presented the bill to COVID-19 as a COVID-19 Recovery Measure, a way for out-of-work cooks, immigrant parents, stay-at–home parents, or other people, WHDH reports. You get a bag full of chips and all this!

As I detail in my book We should all eat from the hands that feed us: What smarter laws would make our food system more sustainable? and elsewhere, cottage food laws are laws that allow home cooks to produce and sell certain homemade foods—typically low-risk foods such as many baked goods, spice blends, teas, and jams—from their homes, at farmers markets, online, and at other venues. As I’ve noted time and again, cases in which homemade foods sold to consumers have sickened people–even in states that allow more high-risk foods such as cheesecake or sauerkraut—are difficult or impossible to find.

Each state may have a cottage-food law. However, they vary in their quality. That’s why—as I noted in a September column in which I detailed a host of recent improvements to several cottage food laws around the country—I’m currently working on a study for the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes ReasonThe following is a comparison of state cottage foods laws, as well as other, more expansive laws which govern the sale or purchase of homemade food in all 50 states.

Massachusetts has many procedural hurdles for entrepreneurs who wish to sell and produce food in their own kitchen. The first is that their local government must permit cottage food sales. In Massachusetts, many municipalities do not. Uyterhoeven, a member of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture of the Massachusetts legislature, stated earlier in the month that many municipalities do not have cottage food producers.

Increasingly, lawmakers around the country have passed cottage food laws that have failed to fulfill their promise—often because they’ve been undermined by intransigent local health departments. They are now realizing their mistakes. Massachusetts, Florida and Illinois could be joining the ranks of states like New Mexico and Florida that added preemption clauses this year to their cottage food laws with Rep. Uyterhoeven’s bill.

Even if there is a permit process for a Massachusetts town or city, the whole process stinks. Massachusetts, like many other states today, requires that local health departments develop and maintain their own inspection and permit programs.

Boston was an excellent example. It has a licensing process that allows cottage food producers to be permitted. It was previously prohibited by the city. It’s wonderful that Boston now has a way to become a cottage food producer. However, it is extremely difficult. Boston requires that a cottage food producer who wants to operate as in other places and towns under the state’s Cottage Food Law submit a request before it issues a permit. That application must include a list of foods the producer intends to make; a sketch of kitchen, prep, and storage areas that is “drawn to scale;” a sample product label—something even the FDA doesn’t require of the world’s largest food producers; proof of zoning approval; and several other tedious hoops.

Boston could approve the application. If so, they would require that the applicant have his/her home kitchen checked by the health department. If the inspector approves the home of the applicant, the permit will be granted to allow the manufacturer to start selling cottage-style foods.

Contrast that mind-numbing, entrepreneurship-stifling process with that found in some states:

  • 1.Make food at home
  • Step 2Sell it.

Massachusetts does require a permit and kitchen inspection. Label pre-approval is required. Kitchen sketches are also needed. But many other states don’t have such requirements. It is a burdensome and discouraging idea to invite a health inspector into your home, especially since cottage food rarely causes foodborne illness.

Uyterhoeven’s bill would remove most of the burdensome requirements that cottage food operations must meet. For starters, the bill would preempt government units—including health departments—from permitting or inspecting cottage food operations. The bill is not, however. Would notIt would shift home-kitchen inspections’ heavy responsibility onto the state. Instead, it would abolish the inspection requirement altogether—consistent with most state cottage food laws today—along with ending the mandatory permitting process. The potential changes are being resisted by at most one Massachusetts local health official.

The bill would also expand the types of foods home cooks can produce in the state—in Massachusetts, foods produced currently in home kitchens for sale may only be shelf stable, including baked goods, jams, and jellies—to explicitly include pickles. The bill would require that cottage food producers tell consumers via a label statement that their food was not produced in a home inspection and could contain allergens.

The latter requirement, which is slightly more stringent than the first, is a crucial one. While I’m no fan of increased regulations generally, I docked Massachusetts—and a couple other states—in my study’s draft state rankings for not requiring such label statements to appear on homemade foods. Clear label statements on cottage foods such as those proposed by Massachusetts are essential for informed consumers.

If Massachusetts updates its cottage food law by adding a preemption clause, removing kitchen-inspection requirements, allowing some pickled foods, and improving its labeling requirements—as State Rep. Uyterhoeven’s bill would appear to do—then Massachusetts’s cottage food law would rocket immediately in my rankings from one of the nation’s worst to one of its best. This is why I am excited for the possibility of Massachusetts cottage food reform.