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Lansing Considers A Break for “Hand Made” Foods

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State lawmakers are considering a bill that would exempt homemade jams, vinegar, baked goods, and some other locally made foods from costly state inspections.

When the Michigan Municipal League announced the winners of its “Let’s Save Michigan” poster contest, it’s not surprising that many, including four of the top six, included green economy images, like farm fields and wind towers. My favorite is the runner up poster made by Benzie County’s own Joseph Cissell, titled “Hand Made.” It points to the clean and healthy future that so many local and small-scale food, farm, and related entrepreneurs are already building.

Realizing this beautiful and very possible future, however, requires all of us to take an active part along the way. I’m writing today about one of those steps toward more “hand made” products and sustainable local businesses in our future that warrants 10 minutes of your time now to call your state representative in Lansing.

Bipartisan “cottage food” legislation sponsored by Representative John Proos (R-St. Joseph) and Representative Pam Byrnes (D-Lyndon Township)—and passed Wednesday, June 9, by the House Agriculture Committee—would exempt small scale homemade foods from high-tech, high-cost requirements in the Michigan Food Law, like licensed kitchen facilities. The full House likely will have the opportunity to vote on the two bills (HB 5837 and HB 5280) that make up the legislation later this month.

Jellies, baked goods, vinegars and the like would be exempt as long as the food is sold only at direct-marketing venues like farmers markets, farm stands and festivals and only if the product is not a huge business line (gross sales capped at $15,000). Foods that are more “potentially hazardous” are not allowed the exemption, such as meats and low-acid canned products.

The reason such legislation is important is that many people want to buy the one-of-a-kind foods that come from home kitchens using old family recipes, for example, and ingredients fresh from the garden. Many people who make these products also can add important dollars to their income and even bootstrap their way to a bigger enterprise by starting small. But Michigan food laws treat these personable businesses the same as those that pump out much larger volumes anonymously, with ingredients from who knows where and moving out to markets all over the place with no connection between maker and eater.

The legislation would simply require the cottage food makers to inform buyers on the product’s label that the food was made in a home kitchen and not inspected by government authorities. This brings the responsibility for ensuring and investigating food quality and safety back to the seller and the buyer. It shifts scarce government inspection resources to those higher-volume and higher-risk products that have more potential for harm.

If you want to help create some entrepreneurial space for homemade foods, let your representative know now that the bill is important to you and your local food economy. A call from you will make them much more likely to pay attention and vote in favor.

To keep up to date on the bill’s status, look up House Bill 5837 and House bill 5280 at MichiganLegislature.org. or check out this Facebook page for Rep. Byrnes’ original House Bill 5837 (identical to Rep. Proos’ HB 5280, and soon to be combined and re-introduced).

Update: The complete package of bills was passed 104-0 by the Michigan House of Representatives on Tuesday, June 15. The Cottage Food bills now head to the state Senate.

More Opportunity

And if you’re really into this food regulation issue, be aware that cottage foods are just one area now undergoing review. The Michigan Department of Agriculture has launched an effort to reexamine more of its food regulations and is inviting participation from the public on committees that will work this summer on the following three topics: General food laws, egg regulations, and ensuring food safety while supporting growth of the sustainable local food sector. This memo provides more detail, and Mary Stephenson at MDA is the person to sign up with, atstephensonm2@michigan.gov.

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Food and Farming program and is MLUI’s senior policy specialist. Reach her at pattyc@mlui.org.

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