Any farmers' market or food fair you visit is sure to feature treats from entrepreneur cooks and bakers. In many ways they have to operate under the radar. That's because state law prohibits selling products made in your home kitchen. But AB 1616, the California Homemade Food Act, would change that. Reporter: Sasa Woodruff
In his Los Angeles backyard, Mark Stambler leans into his wood-fired brick oven and pulls out dark caramel-colored loaves of bread.
Stambler has become a local culinary cult figure of sorts for his wild yeast, artisan creations. With his sourdough starters and freshly ground wheat, his bread struck a chord with bread lovers looking for quality crust and crumb. And until just over a year ago, everything was going well. Then a reporter came knocking.
"The Los Angeles Times, mind you, found out about it and published a full-page article in their food section," Stambler says.
The headline described him as an unofficial master boulanger, making bread in his Los Feliz kitchen, but there was one major problem -- he was selling bread illicitly -- because it wasn't cooked in a certified commercial kitchen. In California, it is illegal to sell food you cook or bake in your own home kitchen.
The next day, inspectors from the Los Angeles County Health Department visited the stores selling his bread and told them to stop. Stambler was disappointed, but he was determined to figure out a way to sell his bread above-board. He soon realized he had a powerful ally in Sacramento, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles).
"I was reading the newspaper, and I read about how one of my constituents was having a nightmare of a time with the government," Gatto says. "Hearing what happened to him, I really felt for him."
Gatto took up Stambler's cause. They partnered with the San Francisco-based nonprofit, the Sustainable Economies Law Center, or SELC. And in February, Gatto introduced a cottage food bill to the California State Assembly that would legalize the sale of home-baked or home-cooked goods in California. SELC's Christina Oatfield says laws like these allow the sale of foods like breads, cookies, jams or pickles.
"The food is generally shelf stable, doesn't need to be refrigerated and is generally known to pose very little risk," Oatfield says.
The law wouldn't cover perishable foods like meats or dairy products. And Assemblyman Gatto says it would limit sales to $50,000 each year.
"You can think of this law as almost an incubator for people who want to break into the food production business," he says.
Renting a commercial kitchen space can cost anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars per month: plus insurance, permits and other costs. Since the recession, 32 states have a cottage food law. Of states that have similar laws, Oatfield of SELC says it's hard to estimate how many people are involved in black market foods, but there's definitely a demand for this kind of legislation.
"I have heard from people all over the state asking how they can help or just letting us know that they really support the bill, from people in the more metropolitan areas like San Francisco and the L.A. area, to people in the most rural parts of California," Oatfield says.
But there is concern that these homemade concoctions are safe as well as delicious. For example, Justin Malan, the executive director of the California Conference of Environmental Health Directors, says home kitchens will be tricky to regulate.
"It's difficult for local environmental health inspectors to go into private homes where you've got all sorts of other activities: you've got animals, you've got kids, you've got other distractions, other issues to deal with in a home that you don't have in a commercial kitchen," Malan says.
It's a point Jack Miller of the California Retail Food Safety Coalition echoes. Underreporting of food poisoning is already an issue with commercial kitchens, and this would add another layer of complexity.
"A good example maybe is a caterer at a wedding, and then we find an illness later where a bunch of people have become ill from eating a food product that they served, and then we go back and find that the catering was operating out of their home," Miller says.
Despite those worries, the bill is moving along. Gatto's bill was approved in the state Assembly at the end of May and heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Aug. 6.