Baking enthusiasts in Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities will have new freedoms in time for Independence Day this summer. A recent reversal of the Allegheny County’s Department of Health guidelines allows people to turn on their stoves and make money from home.
Code enforcers previously showed no tolerance for “cottage food,” which refers to food made for sale in a home kitchen. Although Pennsylvania allows home cooks to sell many types of produce, Allegheny County said no to its residents. Health officials even sent out cease and desist letters during the Covid-19 pandemic, cutting off a source of income at home while advising people to work from home as much as possible.
Volunteers were allowed to organize cake sales for charity, but they couldn’t sell the same foods made in the same kitchens for an income. If they wanted to sell a single biscuit, cupcake, or loaf of bread, they had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to rent or build a commercial kitchen.
At least one home baker from Allegheny County didn’t have this type of dough, so she turned to the Institute for Justice for advice. The public interest law firm has campaigned for cottage food reform in court cases while several jurisdictions have relied on law. As early as 2021, eight states expanded their cottage food laws, and Illinois has a bill on the governor’s desk waiting to be signed.
Some of these results took years of work, but rapid progress was made in Allegheny County. Following an investigation on May 5, public health officials agreed the next day to lift the county’s restrictions, respect state-issued cottage meal licenses, and repeal cease and desist letters that had already been sent.
The change means Allegheny County can finally join the rest of the nation – excluding New Jersey and a few niches of resistance in Massachusetts – in a growing movement driven by consumer demand. Coast to coast people love to buy groceries from neighbors they know and trust, and they love to keep money in the local economy.
After Minnesota eased its cottage food restrictions in 2015, about 5,000 new businesses sprang up in five years. Studies show that low-income women, especially in rural areas, benefit the most. Cottage food laws also help immigrants, farmers, and caretakers with family responsibilities.
Allegheny County missed those growth opportunities, but not for long. The new normal does not mean that people can do what they want without government permission. Home bakers are still required to comply with the Pennsylvania Food Safety Act of 2010, which provides a cumbersome process to get started.
Applicants are required to go through 14 pages of rules, submit a business plan, pass a home inspection, pay fees, and sometimes submit food and water samples for testing. It’s much easier to set up in Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, and other states that don’t require special permits or licenses.
Pennsylvania also limits the types of homemade foods people can sell once they have government approval. Baked goods, dry mixes, sweets, jams, jellies, granolas and similar products are legal, but nothing that needs to be refrigerated.
The Cottage Food Act isn’t the best in the nation. Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming have these slogan rights. But the Pennsylvania rules are better than nothing Allegheny County had before.
Regulators justified the previous ban on hypothetical foodborne disease concerns, but real-world experience shows Allegheny County will be safe. Problems are rare because cottage food business owners typically work alone, which means risking their name and reputation with every transaction. A single complaint can be devastating, so most sellers take extra precautions.
“When I have a personal relationship with the people who buy my products, it is worth a lot more than mountains of rules and hundreds of pages of regulations,” said Nick Carter, Indianapolis farmer and cottage food entrepreneur.
July 4th brings people together, and Allegheny County will be ready in 2021. In addition to baseball, fireworks, and parades, neighbors will have new ways to connect with homemade food.
Alexa Gervasi is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.