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Cottage Food Act, new for 2013, lets home producers sell their goods, cuts red tape

What Mark Stambler was reduced to until Governor Brown signed the Homemade Food Act.
What Mark Stambler was reduced to until Governor Brown signed the Homemade Food Act.
John Rabe

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( To help producers get permits, baker Mark Stambler and LA County's public health department are hosting a public meeting. It's Saturday January 5th at 1pm at the Silver Lake Library.)

Most states allow people to make and sell food from their homes with minimal regulation. Starting Tuesday, California joins them. Off-Ramp played a small role in getting the "Homemade Food Act" passed.

We need public health laws to regulate food. I mean, you don't really want Grandma making pork sausage at home, smoking her Newports, with who-knows-what on the cutting board, and the cats jumping up on the counter. And you sure don't want her to be selling it.

But Mark Stambler, an amateur baker in Silverlake, says bread is a different story. "Bread always tops the list of not potentially hazardous foods. Because there's nothing in it that could harm anybody." A couple of years ago, Stambler visited Off-Ramp to talk about his homemade bread ... bread so good it won a blue ribbon at the state fair. The LA Times picked up the story in 2011 and mentioned that Mark was baking bread at his home in Silverlake and selling it to a couple of local restaurants. That's when the flour hit the fan. Someone from LA County Public Health showed up at his door and told him to stop. As Mark learned, "If I want to sell bread in a store anywhere in Los Angeles County, I basically have to own a wholesale food processing facility. Period." That could cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In stepped Stambler's Assemblyman, Democrat Mike Gatto, angry about red tape hindering small business and the growing cottage food movement. "I think that's sort of what gives government a bad name and was very dismayed at what he was going through," Gatto said. "In many cases these county ordinances or these state laws were put in place in the 1920s."

While those laws kept food reasonably safe and prevented Grandma from selling her trichinosis treats, they also prevented people from making and selling a long list of safe homemade food: dried fruit, nuts, herbs and pasta; fruit pies and jams; mole paste; honey; peanut brittle and toffee; vinegar and mustard; granola ... and bread. Food that in 30 other states is already okay for small producers to make and sell from their homes.

So why not set up a legal framework to let it happen here? Angelo Bellomo, director of Environmental Health at LA County Public Health told us he was all for it. "We don't exempt them, I would never suggest you exempt them from the food safety laws, they do need some form of regulation if they're a commercial enterprise; but we've gotta do it in a way that does allow these new ideas and these novel approaches that are clearly in demand, allows them to operate and to operate safely."

Among other rules, Assemblyman Gatto's Homemade Food Act requires cottage food producers to take a food safety course and create proper ingredient labels, imposes a small fee for a permit, and limits the amount of money producers can make. Gatto says, "What we're trying to do it strike the right balance between getting rid of 90% or 95% of the really onerous nonsensical regulations but still having a county inspector poke in every once in a great while and saying, you know, is this kitchen sanitary?"

Gatto says he was shocked by how hard it was to get the act passed. It was amended 35 times. But he says he's heard from hundreds of people - from a cupcake maker in Glendale to a group of jam and jelly producers in Siskiyou County -- eager for it to take effect.