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How to Navigate the Laws of the Cottage Food Business

If you love cooking, then starting a business as a cottage food home chef could be a great side hustle, or even a career. Of course, there are practical and legal considerations to be taken into account. In the past, we've offered up lots of great advice on how to make money selling food from home. It's a wonderful ambition no matter what scale you do it at.

However, one question we get a great deal is about, “how to get around cottage food laws.” Natural, we have some words of warning on this kind of sentiment. Cottage food law is there to protect you and everyone else from falling victim to unscrupulous vendors of unsafe and ill-prepared food items. As you can imagine, it would be very easy to make something that looks good, but is undercooked, poorly stored, or that even contains inedible ingredients.

The requirements for obtaining and maintaining a cottage food permit are not a guarantee that the proprietor of a cottage food business will never make a mistake or never take a shortcut. But they are a good way to ensure that anyone who wants to undertake this type of business plan is serious, dedicated to providing reasonably good quality products, and is willing to go to some length to prove that he or she is operating their cottage food business in good faith.

That being said, some rules controlling what is legal and illegal to sell under the banner of cottage food changes from state to state, county to county, and sometimes from week to week. Some of these laws are so arbitrary that they are impossible to abide by. So, to some extent, the question of how to get around cottage food laws is not entirely unreasonable.

One prime example is a provision to Illinois cottage food law which states that no item that is not non-potentially hazardous can be sold under the banner of cottage food. Clearly, this is a very spurious and capricious standard, and there is a potential for abuse of power written into it, either intentionally or otherwise. After all, anything can be potentially hazardous with food allergies and other considerations taken into account.

How to Survive Amid Confusing and Frequently Changing Cottage Food Laws

Your first step is to understand the laws as they stand in your state, county, town, and location. Understand that zoning laws will vary from one part of town to another. A good place to start is by doing a Google search for cottage food laws in your area. Terms like “Virginia cottage food laws,” “selling food from home Los Angeles,” “cottage food law Michigan,” and “cottage food laws by state” are good places to start.

Aside to this, there are some basic requirements you can expect to need to adhere to no matter where you live in the US. These include;

If, for example, you live in Illinois and you're worried about arbitrary enforcement of a legal provision like a ban on “non-potentially hazardous” food items, then we would recommend that you maintain good relations with the inspectors and other state and local officials you will have to deal with. Further, it is wise to keep the building you are working out of looking exceptionally tidy and respectable looking. Have good relationships with your neighbors, and know who you are selling to.

In any line of work, you are going to get tough customers, and some people simply will not be satisfied. In a location where non-potentially hazardous items are a known ban, a vindictive buyer may attempt to hurt you by claiming to have contracted food poisoning. Cases like this can be tough to prove and equally tough to fight. In the end, it will come down to who has the better reputation. Unfortunately, these are realities that have to be faced in any public-facing business, especially the food and hospitality sector.

In addition to maintaining appearances and curating a positive reputation, it's also a good idea to compile a cottage foods list made up of the most popular and best selling cottage foods. Foods that are easy to make, well-known, and popular are your best bets. We would never recommend trying to get around cottage food laws, and it is certainly in your best interest to mind your image, guard your reputation, and always put your best culinary foot forward.

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