By Greg Hladky
11:30 AM EST, November 6, 2013
Let's say you're a really good home baker, so good that all your friends want what you're making and insist on paying you for those cakes or pies or cookies.
In a whole bunch of states, from Rhode Island to California, that wouldn't be a terrible problem. In Connecticut, you'd be breaking the law.
You might well get a call from a Connecticut health or consumer protection official, warning that the only place baked goods can legally be made here is in a state-licensed-and-inspected commercial kitchen.
That's what happened to Diana Gomez a couple of years ago. Today, she's one of a growing cadre of home bakers and sympathetic lawmakers looking to bring Connecticut's food production regulations into line with 21st Century economic reality and the trend toward thinking and eating locally.
It's not going to be easy.
State Rep. Mary Mushinsky is one of the legislators looking to reform Connecticut's home-food restrictions and she warns state agency officials feel "more comfortable with traditional, centralized food production because it's easier to regulate."
Gomez is a 34-year-old single mother from Fairfield who was looking to make some extra income from her home baking efforts. "I got started baking because of my son's birthday cakes," she explains. Gomez became so skilled that her friends started asking her to bake stuff for them.
"But when I started trying to sell [her home-baked goodies], I found I couldn't do that," she says.
The state and local officials who nixed her plans suggested she rent space in a commercial kitchen. Gomez says several restaurants turned her down, and an caterer wanted to charge her $20 an hour, an expense she says can add up way too fast when you're waiting for dough to rise or bake.
That's when Gomez realized that what Connecticut needs is what something like 42 other states already have: Cottage Food Laws that actually encourage people to create home-based food businesses. According to Gomez and others, a lot of Connecticut folks who lost jobs or income because of the Great Recession want to be able to start their own home-based food production businesses.
Their attempts in the 2013 General Assembly to get such legislation passed ran head on into a very stubborn bureaucracy.
"On a national level, there has been an increase in 'cottage-type' food production businesses in an effort to provide economic stimulus and create jobs," state Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen admitted during legislative testimony last February.
"Unfortunately," Mullen went on, "when these types of businesses are permitted to be operated by individuals with potentially no food production background, no food safety education, or inadequate food processing equipment, it diminishes the efforts of federal, state and local regulatory agencies that are tasked with ensuring the food supply in our nation is safe for human consumption."
Of course, there are plenty of critics of our food regulatory system who argue all those agencies aren't doing such a bang-up job of protecting our food supply.
A report put out last week by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group warned that an estimated 48 million Americans get sick every year from tainted food. The drumbeat of news stories about food-related illnesses has become almost routine in the past year: diseased chicken; bad bagged salad; and putrid peanut butter. Cucumbers and frozen berries and cheese have all made people sick in the past 12 months.
"The number of such illnesses... has remained stagnant for at least five years," the study concluded.
The regulatory theme behind opposition to home-made foods being sold to consumers is that they're not as safe as commercial products made in commercial kitchens.
"Many of the food-safety laws regulating food production in the United States were designed as one-size-fits-all regulations," explained the authors of an August 2013 study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. "Commercial food production is almost always required to take place in a certified commercial kitchen."
"For some food production, this requirement makes sense," the report admits. "But not all food production is high risk." The Harvard researchers pointed out that things like baked goods, jams and jellies "do not present the same food safety risks as other processed foods."A couple of years ago, Connecticut did loosen up its regulations far enough to allow farmers to sell jams, jellies, preserves and things like pickles and hot sauce to people who come to that farm, but only if those products were made from fruit or veggies grown right there.
Except the farmer would also have to have his or her water tested, have a lab test on the final recipe, and have documented proof of having completed a state-approved food safety course. (Maple syrup made at the farm would, thank goodness, be exempt from state and local inspections.)
Frank Greene insists Connecticut's Department of Consumer Protection isn't totally opposed to the concept of home-made foods being sold to the public, but that there are big barriers to making that happen.
"It's not necessarily... a bad idea," says Greene, who is director of the agency's food and standards division.
Part of the problem with it, he argues, is Connecticut law that gives local health agencies the right to set local health standards for food production. "I can't support something I know local health people are not going to approve," he says.
If the legislature wanted to change that part of state law, Greene adds, then his agency might be able to live with a Cottage Foods Law similar to the strict California system. "But how we fund it, how we do the inspections, that's another thing," he says.
Greene points out that his current staff is already hard-pressed to keep tabs on regular commercial kitchens: "I don't' know what the burden would be on my staff."
Connecticut's regulatory bureaucracy has a habit of driving some people nuts. Take Fred Kudish, for example, who's been operating Hickory Hill Orchards in Cheshire for nearly 40 years.
Kudish says his operation imports frozen apple pies from a commercial distributor in Michigan, and heats them up in the family's Cheshire farm-market store. Consumer Protection insisted that, because the farm's water didn't meet state standards for a commercial kitchen, Kudish needed to buy a "water enclosed system" where anyone touching the pies could wash their hands.
Kudish says state health officials told him the water was okay, but he went ahead and bought a $900 water system and sink, where he and his employees could wash their hands and "then put on plastic gloves" to handle the pies.
"If you come to our store you could eat off the floors," says Kudish. "How is somebody going to get sick?"
"It's all intertwined and all very difficult," Kudish says of dealing with state and local health agencies and the state consumer protection dudes. "All we're getting is aggravation."
Mushinsky, a liberal Democrat from Wallingford, was convinced by constituents to submit a bill to allow baked goods to be produced at home without all that regulatory hassle. "I can't envision a big health risk from baked goods," she says.
State health officials could, and they convinced the co-chairs of the General Assembly's Public Health Committee to send Mushinsky's bill down the legislative garbage disposal.
The same thing happened to the legislation submitted by state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven. After being approached by Gomez, Holder-Winfield says he started asking questions about the issue. "I thought there must be some way to fix this problem," he says. But his bill followed didn't even get to a public hearing.
Gomez says that, if state regulators are worried about money to oversee home-production licensing, they should be able to get it from licensing fees. And she has no problem of copying what other states have done by requiring things like having home cooks take food-safety courses.
States like New York, Gomez points out, have test kitchens and "incubator" kitchens where would-be cooking entrepreneurs can try out their money-making ideas at comparatively little cost.
"It works really good in lots of states," Gomez says.
Those Harvard researchers agreed. "Allowing for cottage food operations is an easy way that states can support the development of small businesses and increase the availability of local products within their borders," the Harvard study concluded.
Both Holder-Winfield and Mushinsky says they'd be ready to reintroduce home-food bills in next year's legislature.
Still, Mushinsky has words of warning:
"There will have to be more pressure from those grassroots kitchens for this to go anywhere."