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Door opens for selling ‘cottage foods’

November 23, 2018

It took a few years, but at long last Connecticut ‘foodpreneurs’ can preheat their kitchen ovens to cook up family favorites for commercial sale.

They better get the car warming up, as well, because under Connecticut’s new “cottage food” rules, there is no easy recipe for getting those products to buyers.

In October, the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection began accepting applications under a new “cottage food” law from those looking to sell food made in their home kitchens. The new regulation prohibits food entrepreneurs, however, from selling through stores or otherwise distributing through the mail or via third-party delivery services like Postmates or Uber — even if selling online.

State law previously required all food vendors to use commercial kitchens, with a few exceptions for farms and charitable bake sales, a significant startup cost that discouraged some entrepreneurs from taking on the risk of attempting to launch a business.

While retail stores are off-limits for distribution of home-cooked products, farmers markets are fair game, giving budding businesspeople one outlet to win wider notice, but one that requires staffing a table one or more days during the seasonal run of any farmers market.

The Connecticut law was driven by outgoing state Sen. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, who saw it as a way for entrepreneurs to test their ideas prior to taking on a commercial kitchen lease or simply as a way for people to generate extra income on the side. After initial passage in 2015, however, the new rules languished on the shelf until a second law was passed last June providing greater clarity.

The state Office of Fiscal Analysis has estimated that DCP could issue as many as 500 licenses initially under the new law, with licenses costing $50 each.

From OK to great

Connecticut’s new cottage food law is limited to foods that do not require set cooking times and temperatures to prevent any food spoiling or otherwise causing harm, with labels required to note ingredients and allergens, the name and address of the preparer, and a “cottage food” notation.

Any licensee may not have annual sales in excess of $25,000, and may not operate as a food service establishment hosting patrons.

Allowed under the law are many pastries including wedding cakes, as well as candy, cereals, jams, coffee grounds, tea leaves, popcorn, seasonings and trail mix, to name a few.

Salsa and pasta sauce are a few popular items not allowed under the new law, with cooked vegetables having to be kept chilled to ensure safety. DCP is soliciting input from state residents on clarification it can provide on any foods not otherwise specified as allowed or prohibited.

The cottage food law tracker website Forrager slaps an “OK” label on Connecticut’s new rules, with Massachusetts and Maine among nine states nationally with the least restrictive rules for entrepreneurs, and New York among nearly 20 states getting a “good” grade from Forrager.

Massachusetts has had its cottage food law on the books since 2000, allowing non-perishable, home-produced foods to be sold in any outlet and no sales quotas in place. New York similarly does not place a ceiling on sales, but unlike Connecticut bars online sales transactions.

Getting into people’s homes

In Connecticut, applicants must take a food safety course — online options cost $15, with community colleges another option — and must specify the products they will make, the preparation methods they will employ, and provide a lab analysis of water drawn from any private well. Entrepreneurs are not allowed to use commercial-grade mixers and other cooking equipment, on the theory that most kitchen sinks are not large enough to ensure proper cleansing.

DCP retains the right to inspect the premises at any time, with food allowed to be made only in a home’s kitchen — no outbuilding kitchens are allowed — and with no pets or children present at the time of preparation. During a 2015 meeting of a Connecticut General Assembly committee weighing the original cottage food law, state Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, suggested those inspections could create issues in any implementation.

“My only concern is if it’s going to be in a person’s home and they start to ramp up to a large scale — aside from what you or I or someone would make a few jars of whatever — ... you’re going to have to have a lot of ongoing inspections,” Leone said at the time. “Now you’re getting into people’s homes, and privacy issues.”

On the Cottage Food Law CT Movement Facebook page that has drawn some 1,500 likes, a Tolland resident described her experience in getting certified, with steps including applying for a home occupation permit from her town and filing information on her septic system; getting a water test that took two days; completing a food handling course within a few hours online; and submitting the DCP application, with the review process taking up to 10 days.

But a few others have reported issues with getting those municipal approvals, including one individual who said her town is requiring a special permit with an accompanying public hearing, and that she contact anyone living within 500 feet of her home to alert them of her plans.

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman

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