Back in 2008, officials in Los Angeles made a big stink about a certain kind of cheese. It was not that the cheese stank — it was how it was made and where it was sold.
So-called “bathtub cheese” was all the rage amongst street vendors in Los Angeles. Known colloquially as queso fresco, the cheese got its nickname from where it was created — literally in bathtubs or backyard troughs. The cheese is a food staple in Mexico, and the enterprising immigrants from South of the Border decided to bring a little taste of home to their fellow paisanos.
There was just one problem. Bathtubs and troughs are perfect vehicles for bacteria, and selling the cheese on the street without refrigeration doesn't help. Add in the potential contamination of ingredients used to create the cheese, and the possibilities grow for salmonella, E. coli, tuberculosis, and listeria to make their way from the food chain to the public. For some reason, it’s not considered a problem in Mexico. Here, it's a big problem, which led to a general crackdown that at least tamped down the growth of the bathtub cheese industry.
Street foods — unlicensed, unregulated, and of dubious provenance — are a major part of local cuisine in many big cities. They are generally a great source of cheap food for on-the-go folks and those on tight budgets. They are also a staple of farmer's markets and other ad hoc establishments.
But it’s worth noting that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimate that 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths are caused each year by food-borne diseases. And regular restaurants and food establishments (in other words, the tax base) are penalized for doing things the right way, running highly regulated businesses at a higher cost than the unlicensed street vendor.
California Leads the Way
Given that, it’s surprising that California instituted a law that allows you to legally make and sell food from the home. The catch is you’ll have to do more than make the food and sell it to get approval. But not much more.
The California Homemade Food Act became law on January 1, 2013. It legalized the manufacturer and sale of certain homemade food products, allowing home cooks to run “cottage food operations,” a term that embraces what’s called “low-risk” foods that are not susceptible to bacteria growth and don’t need refrigeration. Think anything but dairy and meat, which means that the guy selling street Reubens is seriously out of luck.
The idea behind the law is to help small entrepreneurs, and get them out from under the onerous requirements of commercial restaurants and bakeries. Sure, there still is oversight, but aside from a permit from the department of health, taking an online food processing course, and a promise to buy goods only from legitimate sources like supermarkets and wholesalers, you’re on your own.
Don’t expect to build the cottage food equivalent of Facebook. There is a cap in California on how much you can earn. This year, home-based food businesses can gross $45,000, expected to rise to $50,000 next year. After that, you have to subject yourself to more rigid rules and regulations. It will be interesting to see how many businesses see their growth “stall” in the 40s this year.
Fortunately for entrepreneurs, California isn’t the only place you can set up shop in your home. There are now 34 US states that allow the sale of homemade food, and several that don’t are seriously considering the move. Foods permitted under these laws include maple syrup, vinegar, cotton candy, uncoated nuts, canned goods, and fudge, amongst others.
All of this is supposedly supervised by the local and state departments of health. We remind you that these are the same people whose basic policy when it comes to immigration enforcement is to ignore the law.
So step right up and have a go at your favorite street food. We’re sure it will all turn out well for you, as it did for the fine establishments that are more tightly regulated.