Do Cottage Foods Really Come from a Cottage?
November 17, 2022 | Beth Giambrone
Even if you're not familiar with the term "cottage foods," chances are you have purchased them—think getting a loaf of bread from your weekend farmers market or cookies from a friend's home-based baking business. In some cases, they can also be sold online. So, what exactly are they? Cottage foods are home-based, home-made food products prepared outside a commercial kitchen and sold to the public. Cottage food producers operate at a small scale, often from a home kitchen, selling goods in the jurisdiction where they are created.
Cottage foods are exempt from many state food and safety regulations, with supporters of expanding cottage food laws asserting that existing laws burden small business and restrict competition and consumer freedom. Those opposing the expansion of cottage foods argue the need to ensure food safety and to protect consumers from food borne illness. Here's a primer on cottage foods and how they're regulated.
What's the difference between a cottage food kitchen and a commercial kitchen?
Commercial kitchens (sometimes known as shared use kitchens) are large, industrial spaces where food can be produced in high volumes; they can also be rented out for shared use. While every state subjects commercial kitchens to food safety inspection and regulations, a few states require inspection of microenterprise or home kitchens producing cottage foods.
Does the government have a role in regulating cottage foods?
While several federal agencies regulate commercial food products—such as USDA for meat processing and FDA for produce—cottage foods are not subject to federal regulation because they are typically only sold within a state and not across state lines. At the state level, cottage food producers are subject to the health and safety laws and regulations of the state in which they are operating. Some states require cottage food producers to register their business or to have training and/or certification in safe food handling.
Currently, all 50 states and Washington D.C. have some sort of cottage food law in place. Under most state laws, cottage food producers are exempt from food safety laws that apply to food establishments. These exempt rules are usually based on the type of food product produced, the point of sale, and the labeling requirements associated with the food. Although cottage food producers are exempt from certain requirements, all states allow the Department of Health to investigate complaints related to foodborne illness and fine producers if there are violations.
Since the 2020 legislative sessions, at least 17 states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming) considered bills related to cottage foods, often centering around product sales, food products, and labeling. An overview of the conditions and a snapshot of the laws passed in states are below.
What are common cottage food products?
Most state laws limit which food products can be produced and sold as cottage foods. And while specific allowable foods vary state to state, some common restrictions on the type of food sold include foods requiring temperature control (e.g., meat and dairy products) and fermented or pickled foods. Foods such as dairy-free baked goods (e.g., breads and biscuits), candies, and jams are popular cottage food products.
Over the last few years, states have expanded the types of foods that qualify to be a cottage food. In 2021, Illinois enacted SB 2007, amending the types of foods permissible under the cottage food law from a delineated list of canned foods (e.g. jams and syrups) to a general standard that mirrors the FDA definition of "low-acid canned food."
The New Jersey legislature passed A 3991 in 2022 to exempt raw, unprocessed honey from the state's cottage food regulations. The bill is currently awaiting action by the governor.
Oklahoma enacted its "Homemade Food Freedom Act" (HB 1032) in 2021. This new law allows any packaged food or beverage (excluding alcoholic beverages, unpasteurized milk, or cannabis products) to be considered a cottage food rather than only baked goods made without meat or fresh fruits. Additionally, the law allows beekeepers who produce less than 500 gallons of honey per year to qualify for the state's food freedom exemptions if the honey is produced from hives located in the state and sold directly to the consumer.
Similarly, the 2022 "Tennessee Food Freedom Act" (HB 813/SB 693) broadly expands the types of homemade foods eligible for sale under the cottage food law to include any non-time/temperature-controlled food item or non-alcoholic beverage.
What limitations do states place on cottage food sales?
Most states limit cottage food producers to direct-to-consumer sales, such as at a farmers market or roadside stand. More than half of states allow online and direct-to-consumer sales as long as they are to in-state consumers only. While the producer is usually required to deliver the products, at least five states allow delivery by a third party.
Several states have considered allowing the sale of cottage food in retail settings. In 2020, Wyoming enacted HB 84, which increased the gross sales cap for producers and allowed producers of non-temperature controlled foods (e.g., jams, vegetables, dried soup mixes) to use third-party vendors like a retail shop rather than solely relying on gross sales. Furthermore, the Wyoming legislature expanded the use of third-party vendors to include the sale of eggs in 2021 by enacting HB 118. A 2021 Arkansas law (HB 248) also allows for the sale of cottage food products at retail stores.
Additionally, many states define cottage foods based on the number of items sold or the annual gross sales. The gross sales cap limits vary greatly across states, ranging from $3,000 to $250,000. At least twenty states have no gross sales limit. At least one state (Ohio) places a limit on meals sold per week from home kitchens.
What are common labeling requirements for cottage foods?
Most states require cottage food producers label their goods. While specific labeling requirements vary state to state, producers generally must provide the name of the product, a list of ingredients, known allergens (e.g., nuts), contact information of the producer, and a statement declaring the product was made in a kitchen exempt from licensing and inspection regulations.
In some states, cottage food producers are allowed to use an identification number in place of contact information on product labels. Maryland enacted HB 1017 in 2020, which allows cottage food producers to use a unique identification number issued by the Department of Health in lieu of the business name and address. Arkansas HB 248 (referenced above) also allows producers to use an identification number.
State policy surrounding cottage foods is constantly evolving, with more foodstuffs exempt from state food and safety regulations increasing the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks necessitating a public health response. ASTHO will continue monitoring these changes and provide relevant updates.