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Complying with State Cottage-Food Laws for Home-Based Food Businesses

By Tony Bonavist, Tony B’s Specialty Foods

Tags: food safety, canning, home based business, cottage food laws, New York, Tony Bonavist,

Students working at the food lab, Cornell.

Most, if not all States at least at some level, require training and licensing of individuals that wish to produce and market food products for sale. While this article was written specifically with New York State residents, it was also prepared to make the general public aware of the issues associated with improperly prepared and packaged food products, which are offered for sale. Anyone interested in going into this business, check with county and state agencies that administer food processing licenses and regulations. In addition to county/state regulations, preparation and packaging of certain food products, such as pickles, may require involvement with the Food and Drug Administration.

When I began thinking about starting a small specialty-food business using my home as a base, I had little knowledge of food processing regulations. Like many folks, I enjoyed cooking for friends, and over the years, developed a number of recipes in which I was encouraged to package and market some of them.

Who Certifies Cottage Food Businesses?

So began the process of finding which agency had jurisdiction over the types of products that I wished to make and sell. I learned that the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets had that responsibility. I called their offices in Albany, explained my intentions and was advised to contact the inspector for my region. I made that call and a representative came to my home to review my proposal with me.

During his visit, I not only learned that a second kitchen would be required, but I would need a Food Processing License and my recipes would have to be reviewed and approved by the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship (NECFE), also known as the New York State Food Venture Center, a part of the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, before production and sales could begin.

Things were becoming complicated very quickly! To make a long story reasonably short, I complied with the State’s regulations and began sales during the summer of 1993.

As a matter of routine, I provided potential customers with a letter explaining the history of our company. It advised that Cornell had approved our recipes, we obtained a Food Processing License from the Department of Agriculture and Markets, and we carried product liability insurance as a protective measure.

During that process, I was surprised to find that unless I offered my background information, few, if any vendors asked for my credentials! Thus, the reason I decided to write this article: to make people aware that there are a variety of regulations and procedures that must be followed in order to make certain types of foods for sale.

Complying with Cottage Food Laws

Making and selling processed foods, whether they be sealed jars or refrigerated items for public sale, is a serious undertaking because a variety of food-borne illnesses can occur unless established safety procedures are followed. Bacteria, which can grow in improperly prepared and packaged foods, can cause everything from diarrhea to botulism, a life threatening condition.

The Department of Agriculture and Markets works in concert with Cornell University to develop and enforce a variety of procedures designed to protect the public from potential health issues associated with improperly packaged foods.

For example, when the inspector from Ag and Markets visited my premises and learned that I planned to work from there, he explained that my second kitchen would need three sinks — one to wash utensils, one to disinfect utensils with a Clorox solution and one to wash my hands! (Since that time, I installed a high-temperature dishwasher, helping with the first two requirements).

In order to comply, I built the kitchen to conform to the guidelines provided by the State and began making small batches of the product to send to Cornell for analysis. We began with small samples of our marinara and pesto sauces, and sent them along for evaluation.

In about two weeks, we received a response from the lab, explaining the adjustments that would be required before these two recipes could be approved.

The pH of the Marinara sauce needed to be reduced to a level of 4.2 or below, heated to 195 degrees Fahrenheit, packed in clean jars with lids capable of holding vacuum, and inverted to seal and cool before labeling. The same guidelines were outlined for my pesto.

pH monitoring of pesto, to ensure it below 4.2, the threshold for refrigerated foods.

Reducing Food pH and Safely Canning Food for Sale

Now, I’m faced with two new challenges: what to use as an acidifying agent to lower pH and how to measure that parameter? From my training in chemistry and work as a field biologist, I knew that meters were available that measured pH, and ordered one from a source in Albany.

Because I had no clue about what kind of material to use to lower pH, I called The Food Venture Center at Cornell, and was advised to use vinegar or crystalline citric acid as a mechanism for that process. I chose the citric acid and found that after a few batches, a little went a long way.

So, with citric acid and my new meter, I was able to prepare new batches with a lower pH and re-submit them for analysis. After the recipes were approved, I submitted and received a Food Processing (20-C) license from Ag and Markets, along with guidelines about labeling and record keeping, and we were in business!

Since that time so many years ago, when I began this process to start a home-based food business, the FDA and Agriculture and Markets has established a number of new procedures and regulations for specific products of potential hazard. All of these procedures are designed to ensure that foods being packaged for sale, whether they be hot-packed, shelf-stable or refrigerated, are processed properly and safely.

Sellers’ Contacts for More Information

Individuals in New York interested in making and selling food products will need to contact the sources below. These entities will provide the information you will need to get started on a new food-making venture.p;

Contact the NECFE /Cornell Food Venture Center and request the “Initial Guide.” (315-787-2273; on the Web here; or Google NECFE)

Contact the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and request information about licensing requirements (518-457-4492 or on Web here) or local Health Department if not in New York State.

So you see, making and selling processed foods legally involves more than filling containers with your favorite recipes and selling them at the local farmers market. It requires compliance with a variety of state and perhaps federal regulations and processing guidelines designed to ensure that food products are packaged safely and properly.

In this article, we have provide an overview of the requirements that New York State residents thinking or planning to go into the food business need to be aware of before beginning operation. If you decide to take on this endeavor, be sure to contact the NECFE and Ag and Markets before undertaking production.

If on the other hand, you are an outlet store for food products, be sure to ask potential suppliers to show proof that they are licensed to make the items they wish to sell.

Marinara sauce after processing, and jarring with jars inverted to ensure seal and that the tops are sterilized by heat.

*Note: pH is a measure of hydrogen ion concentration; a measure of acidity, where research has shown that Clostridium botulinum cannot grow in environments, particularly anaerobic (no oxygen), where the pH is below 4.6.

Tony Bonavist is a fisheries biologist by training and worked for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Department for over 25 years. He currently operates Tony B’s Specialty Foods in Hurley, New York.

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