In late 2013, Peaceful Belly proprietress Josie Erskine decided to start selling pickles--everything from a traditional dill to a Chinese turnip with smoked paprika. To make a batch of pickles, Erskine had to haul her supplies--knobby winter squash, plump radishes, vinegars of every color--into a basement commercial kitchen that she rented in downtown Boise.
"I did find that I didn't really get to choose my own hours as an entrepreneur or be as flexible," said Erskine. "Through the process of doing those pickles, I [learned] that what I was doing was legal in some states to do out of your home. And that's where I got interested in cottage foods."
At least 45 states have passed cottage food laws in the past few years. These bills ease regulations on small-scale producers making low-risk, or "non-potentially hazardous," foods in their home kitchens—things like pies, breads, jams, honey, dried herbs or popcorn. Though Idaho doesn't currently have a cottage food law, a number of people are fighting to change that.
The Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, working closely with the Department of Health and Welfare, helped craft a cottage food bill that was introduced into the Idaho House Health and Welfare Committee last week.
"This bill that's been created comes from multiple people from multiple parts of the state that were all creating a cottage food bill at the same time and we all came together," said Erskine.
House Bill No. 106 proposed that home kitchens making non-potentially hazardous foods be exempt from licensing requirements. The bill defined those foods as containing a "water activity value" of 0.85 or less and a pH level of 4.6 or below when measured at 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
"In layman's terms, what that means is it's a food that will not support rapid and progressive growth of harmful bacteria," explained Patrick Guzzle, food protection program manager at the Division of Public Health in the Department of Health and Welfare.
Prohibited in the bill was "any food of animal origin, either raw or heat treated, and any food of plant origin that has been heat treated or that is raw seed sprouts; cut melons; and garlic and oil mixtures." The bill also prohibited "low-acid canned foods or acidified foods."
"There are some acidified foods that if you store them and sell them as a refrigerated product, those will be allowed because that refrigeration step acts as a barrier to work against the activation of botulism spores," said Guzzle.
Peaceful Belly's pickles fall under that refrigerated category. So do fresh salsas. But that doesn't mean Erskine can whip up a batch of pickles at her house and sell them to local restaurants. HB 106 also specified that cottage foods can only be sold directly to consumers, meaning wholesale transactions are prohibited.
The bill intentionally left most details vague, preferring to leave the specifics to the rulemaking process. That didn't sit well with the Northwest Food Processors Association—a trade group that operates in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
"We have several concerns with the bill," said NWFPA lobbyist Elizabeth Criner. "We deal with cottage food laws in both Oregon and Washington; we very much support that segment of the industry, but we have food safety concerns that we're trying to work through with the bill's sponsors."
Breland Draper, lead organizer with the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, has been working closely with legislators and Criner to address their concerns and revise Idaho's cottage food bill so it can be reintroduced to the Health and Welfare Committee by Friday, Feb. 20.
"We sat down and worked through the issues that they had, which, truthfully, we agreed with a lot of them," said Draper.
According to Draper, the bill's new draft will include requirements that cottage food businesses go through a registration process and that any products containing allergens are labeled. He also said the NWFPA pushed for a cap on the amount of money cottage food purveyors can make.
"They do want a sales cap, so annually what they're pushing for is $25,000 of income from a product, which was a sticky issue for us but I think we've negotiated it because they also wanted an in-home inspection, which we got them to drop," said Draper.
According to Erskine, developing uniform kitchen inspection criteria would prove difficult because home kitchen setups vary considerably. Mandating inspections would also add more red tape, when the intention of the bill is to reduce barriers to entry for small-scale producers. But without inspections, how can consumers be sure that foods are being created in clean kitchens?
"Our response to that is, 'It's direct-to-consumers so ask them if you can see their kitchen,'" said Draper. "It's more about choice."
"This is what self-regulation looks like," added Erskine. "If you walk up to somebody's booth at a farmers market and you don't feel like their hands are clean or their clothes are clean or their display is clean and you have questions, you get to choose for yourself, 'Do I support this product or not?' There's going to be a handful of people that just cannot wrap their head around that."
Erskine believes that if the bill is passed, it will lead to an explosion of small businesses.
"I think you're going to see quite a big boom where you'll see a lot of innovation and a lot of baked goods for a few years and then the strong ones will stick around," said Erskine. "But I think also what you're going to see is a lot of cottage industry go into just industry—jellies that are so good that they start going to a facility to make them. You're going to see a lot of products come out of it that they just didn't know that they were sitting on that recipe or that family secret that really could turn into a business."