Illinois Food Freedom: Imagine the Possibilities!

 

Chances are, if you have followed Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s work at all this year, you’ve heard the phrase “Food Freedom” quite a bit. Well, that is because we are super excited about the new freedom the law will give farmers and food entrepreneurs in Illinois!

Illinois Stewardship Alliance worked with bill sponsors Representative Will Guzzardi and Senator David Koehler to pass the bill unanimously through both chambers of the Illinois legislature with support from public health groups. We anticipate that Governor Bruce Rauner will sign it soon, and then it will take effect January 1, 2018.

With the bounties of July harvests overflowing at farmers market stands, we thought it was about time to help you dream up all the tasty possibilities that you might find (or sell!) next year. So, what exactly does this bill do to change current cottage food regulations? Read on to learn about all the new possibilities.

Background

To back up for a moment, the phrase “cottage food” refers to foods prepared in a home kitchen and sold, usually, direct to consumer. Some states allow retail or online sales, but most require a direct transaction between the cottage food business and the customer. (See www.forrager.com for state comparisons.). In Illinois, cottage foods can only be sold at farmers markets, although there is one exception. Cottage foods containing a signature ingredient from Illinois (i.e. Illinois blueberries in a blueberry muffin) can be sold on the farm that grew the signature ingredient or through direct delivery to customers. This is an incentive for cottage food producers to source local ingredients, support local farmers, and keep the entire food dollar in their communities.

Illinois also requires that cottage food producers take food safety training to maintain a Food Service Sanitation Managers Certificate. Foods must also bear labels including, among other things, the name and address of the producer and a statement letting the customer know that the food was produced in a home kitchen that is not inspected. Therefore, while cottage foods eliminates the need for expensive commercial kitchens, there are still safeguards in place, the consumer is informed, and traceability to the source of the food is very easy and clear if there is an illness. We strongly encourage all cottage food producers to purchase insurance to protect their customers and safeguard their own finances, and many farmers markets require vendors to carry insurance. For more information about current cottage food rules, please visit http://www.ilstewards.org/policy-work/illinois-cottage-food-law/.

It is important to note that cottage food does not mean food prepared on-site at a farmers market or elsewhere. By definition, cottage food must be prepared and packaged in the kitchen of the producer’s primary domestic residence or in a kitchen in an outbuilding on the property of that residence. If you wish to prepare food on-site, contact your local public health department to learn more.

Two Major Changes to the Law Next Year

First, the cap on gross revenue will be deleted, so there will be no financial limit on a cottage food business. Right now the cap is $36,000, but producers report that as much as 2/3 of that amount can be eaten up by expenses, potentially leaving producers a net income of only $12,000 and possibly disincentivizing the use of high quality, local ingredients in order to keep costs down.

Second, the entire paradigm of food options will be turned upside down, creating lots and lots more food options. This is where things get really exciting! Right now the law says that nothing may be produced in a home kitchen and sold, other than a short list of specific foods. These include things like certain jams and jellies, non-potentially hazardous baked goods, and dried herbs and teas. Period. That is it.

Next year, the law will say that everything can be homemade and sold except a list of foods identified as more potentially hazardous. The exact language from HB3063 that we negotiated with public health groups and wrote is as follows:

“(1.5) A cottage food operation may produce homemade food and drink. However, a cottage food operation, unless properly licensed, certified, and compliant with all requirements to sell a listed food item under the laws and regulations pertinent to that food item, shall not sell or offer to sell the following food items or processed foods containing the following food items, except as indicated:

(A) meat, poultry, fish, seafood, or shellfish;
(B) dairy, except as an ingredient in a non-potentially hazardous baked good or candy, such as caramel;
(C) eggs, except as an ingredient in a non-potentially hazardous baked good or in dry noodles;
(D) pumpkin pies, sweet potato pies, cheesecakes, custard pies, creme pies, and pastries with potentially hazardous fillings or toppings;
(E) garlic in oil;
(F) canned foods, except for fruit jams, fruit jellies, fruit preserves, fruit butters, and acidified vegetables;
(G) sprouts;
(H) cut leafy greens, except for leafy greens that are dehydrated or blanched and frozen;
(I) cut fresh tomato or melon;
(J) dehydrated tomato or melon;
(K) frozen cut melon;
(L) wild-harvested, non-cultivated mushrooms; or
(M) alcoholic beverages.”

This above is a list of what may not be produced by a cottage food business. If a food is not listed here as prohibited, it will be allowed.

Canned foods may be the most confusing category, as producers and inspectors get used to the new law, and we may see further guidance from public health entities if they see items for sale that cause concern. There is a risk of deadly botulism from improperly canned, or low-acid, canned foods, so there was some hesitation about this category in negotiations. Because of this risk, any vegetables that are canned must include a step that raises the acidity, by pickling, fermenting, or other means of adding acid. When in doubt, cottage food producers are strongly encouraged to test the acid level of any allowed canned foods at home or, even safer, by sending a sample jar to a food lab. Remember, the cottage food producer is responsible for safely producing and storing foods and should take every reasonable step to ensure food safety. Canned mustards, acidified with vinegar, should fit under this category, as the seed is part of the vegetable plant mustard (yes, the greens are delicious too).

“Cut greens” does not refer to the harvest cut, but it does mean chopped, sliced, or torn leaves. Thus, a mixed greens salad would only be allowed if the leaves are baby greens that were cut at the stem at harvest only. While the FDA considers cut tomatoes to be potentially hazardous because bacteria can accumulate on cut surfaces during refrigeration, we pushed back in negotiations to make sure there was some way for farmers to use all those delicious, wonderful tomatoes that may be left over after market or that are a little blemished in the field but still safe and delicious. Cut tomatoes may be frozen, and if acidified, should be allowed under the canning exception, though we could see guidance on this. The natural level of acidity in tomatoes varies, so you may not rely on the tomato’s natural acids alone. Note, fresh tubs of salsa with cut tomato will not be allowed. Cut melon will basically be prohibited altogether due to concerns such as listeria, but the sky is the limit for other cut fruits (peaches, strawberries, apples, etc.).

While the initial bill we filed allowed just about all homemade or harvested foods to be sold with minimal regulation, we knew that was likely going to be too extreme. We introduced the bill to start the conversation about food freedom and were pleasantly surprised to find public health groups open to taking this new approach to cottage foods, as long as we started a bit more gradually. There could be opportunity to go further in the future, but it is a huge step in the right direction that we were able to negotiate the current list, which allows for all non-potentially hazardous foods to be sold under cottage food law.

Nuts, grain products, frozen soup mixes, syrups, flavored honeys, refreshing beverages, and more! Are you dreaming yet?