Louise Meier used to lug her fruit, honey and jarring supplies from her house in Nucla to a commercial kitchen several miles down the highway in Norwood to produce her popular jams, jellies and honey. She had to pre-schedule her hours at the kitchen, which often meant working at inconvenient times and always meant limiting how long she could spend in production. Following retail food operator regulations was a bit overwhelming for an individual producer like Meier.
Though the laws were made to ensure food safety and protect public health, she said in her case they sometimes did the opposite. Meier already practiced safe handling and processing procedures in her very clean home kitchen, where her own standards were higher than some commercial kitchens — but the necessity of transporting her jars back home immediately after production meant the possibility of lids coming unsealed during the loading or unloading. Each unsealed jar lid could lead to product contamination, making each of those jars unsellable.
The Cottage Foods Act, which became law in Colorado on March 15, 2012, made small production of processed foods easier for Meier and other small-batch food vendors who sell their wares at local farmers markets. Now, two new pieces of legislation have been introduced that would expand the kinds of foods allowed under the Cottage Foods Act as well as the amount of money producers can make. But some producers and legislators worry the regulations, while aimed at public safety, are more applicable to large-scale operations and could be burdensome for small producers such as Meier.
The Cottage Foods Act opened the door for these small businesses to sell their products legally without the more stringent and expensive processes required of retail food operations. The act also placed several restrictions on producers, mostly to help prevent food-borne illnesses and ensure consumers were informed of the food’s less-regulated origins.
“In most rural areas, we don’t have a whole lot of access to commercial kitchens, yet that’s where most of the growers are,” explained Meier, who makes most of her products with the fruit grown in her orchard and hoop-house gardens. “I didn’t produce and sell nearly as much as I do now under the Cottage Foods Act. I can produce more now because of the ease of doing it in my kitchen.”
She and her husband, Terry Boekhout, began their business by selling organically grown vegetables, fruit and honey under their Rockfield Place brand, named after their property’s “rocky soil overlooking the San Miguel River” on “hills of sagebrush, cactus and rock.” Bees were an integral part of their farm ecosystem, so they decided to sell honey; when they had excess or aging fruit, they made jellies and jams.
Part-time cooks get a boost with new income source
The Cottage Foods Act benefits all types of individuals who aim to make a bit of income from selling food cooked in their home kitchens. Examples of such entrepreneurs include middle-aged retirees who are also caregivers for older family members, single parents who need a flexible way to make income so they can stay home with their children and people who have lost their jobs and sell homemade foods to make ends meet.
“It is kind of a lifeline for some people, providing extra income. One girl put herself through college by selling her baked goods,” said State Rep. Don Coram (R-Montrose) of District 58, which includes Dolores, Montezuma, Montrose and San Miguel counties. “I was one of the original sponsors of the 2012 Cottage Foods Act. It’s a good way to market farm products, the idea being that a lot of produce that does not make it off the shelf as fresh can still be processed and sold.”
State Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-Durango) of District 6, which encompasses eight southwest counties including Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel, agrees the law is positive and encourages the growth of small business.
“Coming out of the recession, particularly in my district, a lot of people are still really hurting economically from its impacts, and this gives them a way to earn money, plus it usually taps into their passions for gardening, making jam and other hobbies,” she said.
Meier describes herself as a small producer with a limited market within 70 miles of her home. Like other cottage foods producers, she can only sell her products from her own property, roadside stands, farmers markets, festivals, fairs and other temporary venues, and only directly to consumers. Cottage foods are not allowed to be resold by restaurants, retailers or other individuals, nor can sales be made on the Internet, by mail or phone order, or consignment or wholesale, according to forrager.com, an online cottage food community with facts and a partial, national cottage foods producer directory.
The farmers market in Norwood has allowed sales by cottage foods producers since the 2012 law was enacted. Other farmers markets in the region, including those in Montrose, Ridgway and Telluride, also opened to cottage foods vendors that year.
“The Cottage Food Act is good in that it provided economic opportunity that would not have been there otherwise,” noted Greg Spaulding, board president of the Norwood Farm and Craft Market, and added, “There should always be a strong requirement for safe food handling, proper labeling and record-keeping.”
Food safety training aims to protect public health
Though cottage foods producers are not required to file the same paperwork, pay fees nor be inspected for a license like other retail food operators, they are required to take food safety courses. Several are offered in classrooms and online each season, including some by the CSU Extension Office of the Tri River Area. The CSU Extension course, entitled “Food Safety for Colorado Cottage Foods Producers,” covers the basics of how to safely operate a small-scale food business from a home kitchen in a two-and-a-half to three-hour course. The cost varies but is generally $25 to $35, and participants receive a certificate of completion good for three years.
In 2014, CSU Extension Offices across the state held 18 classroom trainings specific to cottage foods with 218 participants, according to Extension Specialist Mary Schroeder from the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at CSU in Fort Collins.
“While other safe food handler classes may be acceptable under the Colorado Cottage Food Law, trainings offered by CSU Extension address food safety considerations specific to a home-based kitchen, such as pets in the kitchen and household members who may be using the same space where food for the business is being prepared,” Schroeder said.
The state also recommends that cottage foods producers have liability insurance, though it is not a requirement. “I had liability insurance anyway,” said Meier, who has also taken food safety courses, most recently last fall. “When you’re growing and selling to the public, you definitely should have it and it is not really expensive.”
Since the Cottage Foods Act was passed, Ouray County Public Health Director Elisabeth Lawaczeck said her office has received no complaints related to cottage foods and not one local public health investigation has been traced back to food. Lawaczeck also reported there have been no reported food-borne disease outbreaks linked to cottage foods since their sales became legal.
Legislators and cottage foods advocates promote ‘Pickle Bill’
Colorado House Bill 1102, introduced on Jan. 14, 2015 in the Public Health, Healthcare and Human Services Committee, is nicknamed the Pickle Bill and would increase the types of foods allowed under the Cottage Foods Act, including spices, teas, dehydrated produce, nuts, seeds, candies, certain baked goods and eggs currently under additional restrictions. (Meats both fresh and dried, dairy products, certain sauces, fresh pasta, ice products and canned produce are not allowed.)
State Representative Millie Hamner (D-Dillon) of District 61, which encompasses Summit, Lake, Pitkin, Gunnison and Delta counties, is a co-sponsor of Bill 1102, and was involved in the first passage of the Cottage Foods Act and amendments in 2013.
“This year, the act is so popular that people are interested in expanding the kinds of foods to pickled products,” she said. “Pickled products really do help the farmer. If someone’s produce is not sold at the farmers market, this allows them to make extra money by pickling the produce.”
Though Hamner said she likes to carry bills that don’t cost money, the fiscal note for 1102 estimates a $200,000 annual cost in increased workloads for local public health offices, due to increased risk with potentially hazardous food contaminants. She believes, however, that the “local benefit to the producers and consumers will way outweigh the fiscal impact.”
The bill also introduced the addition of tortillas and empanadas as allowed foods, and proposed amendments would further expand the definition of certain allowed foods. It has been stalled in committee for nearly two months, due to several concerns, including public health issues about botulism.
State Representative J. Paul Brown (R-Ignacio) of District 59, which covers parts of six counties, including San Miguel and Ouray, has not decided how he will vote on the bill. But he said, “Philosophically I support an increase in the allowed foods as long as they are non-risky. The decision should be between the consumer and supplier. If the supplier is not careful to make sure they’re providing a healthy food, they won’t be in business very long.”
State Rep. Coram agreed he is not ready to make a decision on the bill.
“When I first read it, I was concerned about the acids and some people getting food poisoning,” he said. “They’ve got to make sure all the sideboards are on before I put my name on that bill. I want to help them all I can but I don’t want to do something where people will get sick.”
State Sen. Roberts agreed. “We do have to be sensitive to the food safety issues,” she said. “We all remember not that long ago the Rocky Ford cantaloupe issues. When food-borne illnesses happen, they can have tragic consequences. At the same time, as long as these are home-based businesses that really aren’t into the mainstream of commerce, I don’t know that it makes sense to regulate them out of existence.”
Among the proponents of pickled foods is the Western Colorado Congress, a grassroots political action group based in Grand Junction that focuses on healthy, sustainable communities and social and economic justice. The group will visit the State Capitol on March 10 to lobby for the Cottage Foods Act amendments.
“The new pickle bill is something we have been waiting for,” Montrose Farmers Market Manager Lois Harvie said. “I know lots of people who do pickles and sauerkrauts and fermented foods. If this passes it will be great for all of us. Pickling is an easy process, and so many folks are really good at it. Plus [pickled products are] really good for you.”
How big is too big for a one-person business?
The other legislation being considered this session is Senate Bill 085, sponsored by State Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik (R-Thornton) of District 24 in the suburbs north of Denver. In its original draft, the annual revenue limit for each type of food could be up to $20,000, as opposed to $5,000 now. The bill was drawn up to take away the restriction on resale of cottage foods to restaurants, retailers and others.
However, several organizations and individuals are opposed to the large income increase as well as the resale clause. Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said, “It really comes down to the fact that their regulations for health inspections are not as stringent… Regular food operations have two inspections a year. If cottage food producers are allowed to resell, we want them to go through the same rigors as restaurants go through.”
Mary Lou Chapman, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association, agreed.
“Potential problems with traceability and liability are a concern,” she said. “All of our stores and suppliers have to meet strict safety standards that cottage foods producers do not.”
The bill’s current form removes the ability to resell and changes the per-item revenue limit to $10,000. Though it proceeded fairly quickly through the Senate and the House, a House amendment adding Colorado LLCs as allowable cottage foods business entities has slowed its progress. This week, the bill was back in the Senate, waiting for approval.
The bill is supported by all three local legislators: Sen. Roberts, Rep. Coram and Rep. Brown.
“I think people ought to have freedom,” Brown said. “I don’t think competition should be a problem with larger food producers. Quite frankly, I would probably like to look at some of the retail food operator regulations and see if all are needed for large operations. We need to make sure we have a safe product, but I don’t like overregulation.”
Meier, who sometimes only makes eight jars with one type of fruit, doesn’t understand why legislators are taking rules originally intended for small-scale operations and broadening them in order to add a larger player to the system.
“The act is geared toward small producers. You would need a whole packing plant to do some of the amounts they are suggesting now,” she said. “It creates unfair rules for the little guy. We need to make it help the small farmer so they can make it [financially] from their crops. I know this is an evolving area of food production, but I feel it’s already moving toward larger producers, and away from the original intent: one person, selling directly to a consumer.”