Cottage Food operations (CFO) are food businesses that are allowed to produce certain non-potentially hazardous foods in their own homes and sell within their local county or state region. Most states allow cottage food operations or have pending legislations or initiatives in place. California just starting allowing people to make and sell homemade food so every artisanal creator in the state is rushing to sell their amazing products at the farmers market.
Last week I took a class on the CFO regulations in San Francisco County. Within the first five minutes people were raising their hands and asking questions like.. “Is my cream pie allowed?” or “Can I put must be refrigerated after opening” on the label to make sure no one gets sick …. Or “do I need to list the allergens on every package?” Or my favorite- “my beef jerky NEVER gets moldy… its ok to sell that right?”
After the first five minutes of the class I decided I am never going to buy anything with the mandatory required “This is a Homemade Food” on the label, product again. I am just too scared. I honestly believe that regular people should not be making and selling foods in their homes at farmers markets and the state regulations (at least in California) only require that you go in and pay a few hundred bucks-there is not even a pre kitchen inspection process for CFO’s that sell directly to the consumers.
Maybe years ago when people would make mostly harmless cakes and cookies it was ok but these days start up cottage food entrepreneurs have fertile minds and want to break out of the normal boring cottage industry approved foods and go for the stuff that no one else is making… like cheese pies and beef jerky.
I don’t blame these innocent non-food science trained people for wanting to get creative with their CFO items. After all, there are so many exciting foods on the market now- like cheese based shelf stable salad dressings and artisanal beef jerky and shelf stable cream filled donuts- and this amazing array of items, coupled with the fact that the food industry hides their food scientists from the public eye (when do we ever get quoted in mainstream magazines… ?) – seems totally doable to your typical start up person. Consumers figure that they can make these food products in their private kitchen and sell. If Kraft can do it why can’t they? But…ask them about pH and you will get blank stares, ask them how they made their beef jerky and what the water activity is and they will point you to their $50 dollar dehydrator.
So I am not in favor of CFO’s- and I wish that I had voted no on that proposition but at the time I didn’t realize how much consumers are so completely in the dark on what makes a food safe. It doesn’t help that the 2 hour mandatory CFO food safety course that must be taken not before, but within 90 days of selling a homemade food and is based on restaurant operations- so washing hands, keeping sanitation fluids away from food—temperature danger zones. But that still leaves CFO founders with no understanding of the rules behind creating these foods- and the three major contributing factors to that items safety and shelf stability- Water activity, pH and the thermal process. They can sanitize their hands all day long but if they sell beef jerky without checking the Aw, they could accidently kill someone.
I say leave the development of shelf stable foods to the food scientists or at least those who have taken extensive food safety/food handling coursework. The Cottage Food industry is like a weapon of mass destruction that can lead to some potential disaster.