Cookie Bill Could be Icing on the Cake

Most local food bought and sold in Wisconsin must be made in a commercially licensed kitchen, but an assembly bill could allow more homemade goods to go to market.

The bill, known as the cookie bill, would expand the state’s cottage food law, which currently allows people to pickle certain foods and sell up to $5,000 of them in a face-to-face transaction. The cookie bill would allow people to also make and sell baked goods from home, and sell up to $10,000 worth of product.

But allowing more people to sell homemade food doesn’t rest well with Karrie Oram from Koepsel’s Farm Market in Baileys Harbor. Oram sells pickled goods at the farm market, and makes them all from a licensed, inspected commercial kitchen.

“I’ve gone through all the schooling, we’ve done major expensive kitchen work keeping it up to snuff and I’m inspected every eight months, which is good,” Oram said.

Home picklers aren’t held to the same standard, Oram said, so customers don’t know what they’re getting. Samantha Clark of Sammi Rae’s Homemade in Egg Harbor has a similar concern.

“You do not know the conditions the food is being made in,” Clark said. “You can’t go into somebody’s home and inspect their home.”

Homemade goods must be labeled to warn customers they aren’t made in an inspected kitchen, the date the product was made, a list of ingredients and the name and address of the person who made the product.

The fear of contamination doesn’t hold for others, who see the cookie bill as an opportunity for people looking to start small businesses or diversify existing ones.

“It would give farmers a chance to diversify the products they offer,” said Kara Slaughter, Wisconsin Farmers Union government relations director. “We also see it as an on ramp for people who want to get into a larger food business and eventually work their way up to using a commercial kitchen. This gives them a chance to test out recipes, develop their market base and then use one of their local kitchen incubators or local commercial kitchen when their operation is really humming.”

That’s exactly what Shannon Heupel wants to do. Heupel bakes and decorates cookies from her home, and although she’s often approached by potential customers, she can’t sell them. Heupel works part time at a pharmacy and at the post office to make a living, but dreams of decorating and selling cookies instead.

“I know it would do well,” Heupel said, “but I’m not about to go and rent a storefront without having something set up.”

Renting space in a community-run commercial kitchen is too pricey, so she doesn’t go that route either. Heupel wants the opportunity to bake, decorate and sell her products from home so she can build up a customer base before investing in a business.

Heupel supports the cookie bill, but thinks the $10,000 limit is too low. She thinks the limit should be lifted to $25,000 to give bakers and picklers more opportunity to save money to buy or rent commercial kitchen space.

Clark took the other route – she opened Sammi Rae’s Homemade eight years ago and put money into a commercial kitchen right away. She said her kitchen is basically the same as a restaurant kitchen, and the while the equipment is expensive and it takes a lot of energy to track products, the effort is worth it.

“To me that was the only way to do it right,” Clark said. “If I’m selling food, I wanted to make sure it was done right to make sure my customers were getting a product that was made in a proper facility.”

Home picklers aren’t required to take a food safety class, but Mary Pat Carlson, executive director of the Farm Market Kitchen hopes the cookie bill will be amended to include that requirement.

“I think this [bill] is an opportunity for some really small entrepreneurs to test the water a little bit, but there are some limitations to it and all sorts of risks to it,” Carlson said. “Anything in food manufacturing really takes getting the skills, training and making sure things are safe.”

The Farm Market Kitchen allows customers to rent space in commercial kitchens so they can sell products outside of the state’s cottage food law. Customers have to be trained in food handling and manufacturing, which Carlson said helps them learn how to run a business, avoid food contamination and prepare for a food recall scenario. Required training would protect the consumer and the manufacturer.

“Safety issues and risk are reduced so dramatically because we require them to take safe-serve classes,” Carlson said.

Raechelle Cline, public information officer for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection (DATCP), recommends cottage food producers take food safety classes even though they aren’t required. DATCP, the University of Wisconsin Extension and other organizations offer such classes.

DATCP has guidelines and instructions for people selling home-pickled food. She said food scientists prefer keeping the revenue limit low because food will ultimately be safer.

“The less product you’re producing, the less chance there is of cross-contamination, and there’s a smaller requirement for cleaning and sanitizing,” Cline said. “Once you get into a larger scale production, those concerns become greater because you’re moving more product through.”

Many other states have cottage food laws. Michigan allows people to sell up to $20,000 of homemade baked goods, vinegars, pies, jams and jellies, dried goods and nuts, but no pickled products. Ohio allows people to sell products such as baked goods, candy, jams and jellies, granola, dried goods and coffee. Both states require cottage foods be labeled. Minnesota does not currently have a cottage food law.

Carlson hopes more foods, such as candy, will be added to Wisconsin’s cottage food law in the future.

“There are a number of things that are pretty simple processes that are fairly safe and are not included in this bill,” she said. “It will take a little while to get those things.”