California lawmakers consider food policy proposals

From artisanal breads and homemade jams to gluten-free goods, some of the year’s most buzzworthy food movements are sprouting under the Capitol dome….

From artisanal breads and homemade jams to gluten-free goods, some of the year’s most buzzworthy food movements are sprouting under the Capitol dome.

State lawmakers are set to consider a handful of food policy proposals that could shape what goods Californians keep in their pantries and what they know about what’s on their plates.

California is no stranger to major food policy measures, including a ban on foie gras that is set to go into effect later this year. But heightened interest in food issues, including the farm-to-table movement and demands for increased disclosure, are driving more proposed changes.

“I think in recent years, there’s been an awareness that buying local is good for you and also good for the environment,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who is carrying a bill that would lift restrictions on selling homemade prepared foods. “I think that as families have realized that, certainly the Legislature has heard from our constituents.”

The Los Angeles Democrat has introduced one of two bills that would allow the sale of “cottage food products,” such as mixed nuts, granolas, roasted coffee, baking mixes, baked goods and preserves made out of the home.

Current law prohibits the sale of most prepared foods made in unlicensed noncommercial kitchens. Gatto said he wanted help remove some of the “red tape” for what he calls micro-enterprises after hearing the story of a Los Angeles man who couldn’t sell his homemade bread due to the current rules. The bill includes some oversight of the cottage food producers, including giving public health officials authority to inspect the home kitchens.

Concern over mislabeling of gluten-free foods caught the attention of Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet. After exploring legislation to address labeling standards, Emmerson decided to draft a resolution urging stricter federal standards.

Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, is pursuing legislation aimed at making sure diners know where the fish on their restaurant menu was harvested.

“I believe consumers would want to know if their seafood was coming from the Sea of Japan or the Gulf of Mexico or something else,” said Lieu, noting concerns about contamination and lack of fishing regulations in some parts of the world.

Proposed food policy changes aren’t limited to the Legislature. A coalition is seeking to qualify an initiative for the November ballot that would mandate labeling for genetically modified foods. Supporters have poured nearly $1.3 million into the effort, including $500,000 from a Chicago man who runs a natural health website.

Many of the proposals are opposed by the food processing industry, which raises food safety issues and warns that the varying standards adopted by individual states create burdensome regulations for businesses. Ed Yates, president and CEO of the California League of Food Processors, said he worries about legislators pursuing food policy changes based on the “issue du jour.”

“California tends to think it wants to be ahead of the world on things and tries to propose things that ought to be dealt with on the federal level,” he said.

But California isn’t the only state considering such changes.

Scott Hendrick, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said issues surrounding labeling requirements and homemade foods “are definitely getting a lot of attention in state legislatures this year.” He said cottage food industry bills in particular are seen as a “way to address that growing marketplace.”

“I think that is a reflection of the growing use of farmers markets and the ways that consumers are selling foods now with the Internet has changed a lot in the last several years,” he said.

Christina Oatfield, with the Sustainable Economies Law Center, an organization that worked with Gatto’s office on the cottage food legislation, agrees. She said “increased interest in local foods and speciality foods and having a personal or direct relationship with the person who is making your food” has helped give the movement more muscle.

She also said more people are trying to turn hobbies and family recipes into extra income in the down economy.

“People are looking for creative ways to start businesses on a shoestring budget to supplement their income after they have gotten laid off or had their income reduced for other reasons,” she said.

Roseville resident Kale Elledge’s entry into food production rose not from a business plan but from a kitchen experiment. His attempt to make a salsa out of fresh tomatoes and hot peppers he got from a former colleague produced a honey habanero hot sauce that he said left him thinking “holy cow, this stuff is really great.” His friends and colleagues agree, and he estimates he is making a 10-quart pot of the sauce a month to satisfy their requests.

Elledge, who works for SEIU Local 1000, said he would like to start a side business selling his condiment, but finds the regulatory requirements “daunting.” He said he would pursue the idea if his legal concerns were put to rest by legislative action.

“There’s definitely something to having a cool, new underground item that people haven’t had before,” he said. “It’s like being the first to discover a band.”

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Call Torey Van Oot, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5544.

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