Homemade foods now legal in Sacramento County

County grapples with prospect of a legal homemade-foods industry

Break out the hairnets and rattraps, because home cooking has gone commercial.

In anticipation of a new statewide law allowing people to sell their own kitchen creations for the first time, Sacramento County officials last week took up the question of how to prevent everyone from getting food poisoning.

The hope is that these small-time “cottage-food operations” (as they’re termed) will eventually develop into a successful industry, Environmental Management Department director Val F. Siebal told the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on November 6. But the law, which goes into effect January 1, 2013, doesn’t come without a few half-baked complications.

Questions about increased traffic to neighborhoods and whether the approved fee schedule can cover the costs of policing the household businesses won’t be settled for months.

It also remains to be seen whether the state will have a required training apparatus set up in time to actually show people the safe, sanitary way to prepare a limited menu of nonperishable, nontemperature-sensitive food items in their home kitchens.

“There’s still controversy about how they’re going to pay for that,” Siebal explained.

And, unlike the 25 other states where cottage-food operations are legal, California isn’t just allowing the direct sale of kitchen-made goodies to friends and neighbors. It’s letting Sacramento’s budding Julia Childs and Gordon Ramsays indirectly sell their homemade jams, granola and the like to restaurants and retail markets, which can then use them as ingredients in commercial-food products.

That could make it more difficult for local health officials to track and identify sources of future foodborne illnesses, a staff report from the county’s Environmental Management Department asserts.

Siebal told supervisors that the number of foodborne illnesses in the county is well below the state average. The cottage-food law doesn’t look like it will alter that landscape too much, but it could make a dent.

Under state law, direct-sale operators cannot be inspected unless there’s a complaint. Indirect food sellers are subject to limited inspections. Under the ordinance introduced last week, county inspectors will have some latitude to track and re-inspect violators.

“For those [operators] that may be a problem, we’ll have the ability to do inspections,” EMD’s Environmental Health Division chief John Rogers told SN&R.

There have already been a few inquiries from interested residents about the new law, Rogers said.

All of which has made at least one elected official feel like an overworked fry cook. Board chairman Don Nottoli said the cottage-food bill—Assembly Bill 1616—was “rammed through the Legislature,” giving local governments little prep time and introducing possible incongruities with existing city and county zoning codes.

“They don’t even have money for it, and yet we’re going to be up and going January 1,” Nottoli said like a chef being asked to microwave a cut of veal. “And we’re not necessarily going to have good answers for folks.”

That’s not quite a recipe for disaster, officials say, but it could result in an undercooked main course.