Assembly bill would legalize cottage bakers
Remember Jack Melton, the bootleg fruitcake baker? He finally might be able to go straight….
Remember Jack Melton, the bootleg fruitcake baker? He finally might be able to go straight.
Just before Christmas in 2008, Shasta County achieved a brief moment of national notoriety when the Environmental Health Department ordered Melton, a then-86-year-old veteran of World War II, to turn off his fruitcake oven.
Baking from his home kitchen in Redding, Melton had for years been selling both to Churn Creek Road passers-by and via mail to fans around the country to supplement his modest retirement income. He’d also been breaking the law. California health codes generally bar the sale of home-baked food, requiring even small operations to use permitted commercial kitchens to protect the public from tainted food.
That could change soon.
The state Assembly on Tuesday passed a bill, AB 1616 by Los Angeles County Democrat Mike Gatto, that would legalize “cottage food operations,” home-based family businesses that sell less than $50,000 per year worth of bread, cookies, candy, jam and other foods that are not considered potentially hazardous.
The bill would require only token licensing for vendors who sell product directly — to friends and neighbors or at a farmer’s market. Those who sell through retailers would face rules that are stricter, but still relaxed compared with current law.
These distinctions strike a sensible balance. Not all foods pose the same risk of spreading illness. A handshake doesn’t prevent food poisoning, but knowing and buying directly from the cook lets buyers make their own judgments about reliability. And even if a sloppy kitchen produces a batch of tainted granola, these micro-operations’ small size limits any potential harm to the public. Compared with industrial-size shipments of bad beef or chemically tainted milk imported from China, the risk here is trivial.
There is also a growing public interest — partly nostalgic, partly in reaction to food scares that leave a global trail of contamination and illness — in eating local foods and supporting local producers. No, homemade tea blends bought from a booth at a craft fair won’t be elbowing Lipton out of the market, but the law should make room for these classic mom-and-pop operations.
And especially in this tough economy, the state should get out of small entrepreneurs’ way — as far is it can while reasonably protecting public safety. A home business might not just sell food, but also keep food on a struggling family’s table. That certainly shouldn’t be a crime.