Leslie Stingley launched her cottage food business this spring when she lost her job shortly after the pandemic began. It’s been a lifeline for her family.
Mississippi is one of 49 states that have a cottage food law that allows producers to sell food they make free of government regulations. This allows entrepreneurs to sell certain non-perishable foods they make at home to willing consumers. There is no state registration required, nor do you need the state to inspect the same kitchen that you also prepare family meals from.
Leslie is excited for where her business is headed and the potential to supplement her family’s income, but she’s still limited in what she can sell – and how much she can earn.
While the cottage food law allows limited freedom to small producers, the food products you offer must be on an approved list, and you must earn below a state-mandated sales cap, discouraging growth and expansion. There is more we can do to empower small farmers and small businesses and allow consumers to purchase the food they want to eat.
Because while food producers of all sizes have historically provided their delicious products to consumers, the rise of the regulatory bureaucracy has squeezed out smaller producers. Today, these farmers and small-scale food producers can be considered criminals – and that ought to change. It’s good for small businesses. It’s good for consumers.
The regulation of food processing began as the food we consumed moved further from our backyard and we became a largely urban nation. In a sense, that regulation is necessary. We have no idea where our food comes from and want to make sure it is safe to eat. Inspections and regulations were therefore designed to protect us from bad actors whom we could not see or have necessary information about to make an informed choice before buying their product.
But as usually happens with government regulations, large businesses – with access to monetary and political capital – began to demand more regulations to stifle smaller competition that couldn’t accommodate the burden as easily. And that trend remains. That is why industry groups usually favor regulations that place their smaller rivals at a competitive disadvantage.
In this case, it is small farmers who cannot operate in an environment more suited for large-scale operations. Unfortunately, the state and federal government have created a significant barrier to entry for all but a few, stifling the local and diverse food culture created by small producers.
But it doesn’t need to be this way.
Five years ago, Wyoming launched the modern food freedom movement. Food producers there are now exempt from “licensure, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, or labeling regulations when selling food” to an “informed end consumer.” Utah, Maine, and North Dakota have followed suit with similar laws.
Under such as a law, you can sell only to the end consumer within your state, it must be used only for home consumption, and you are required to label that the food has not been inspected.
The basis of any food freedom law is that the consumer is required to inform themselves about the product they are purchasing, who they are buying it from, the people behind the product, and the processes they use. Fortunately, today’s technology makes it even easier to find high-quality food, read reviews from happy (or unhappy) customers, and make knowledgeable decisions. Online reviews and apps are doing the job of a government inspector – and providing even more information to consumers.
Government regulations are often fashioned as being necessary for our health and safety. That is certainly a laudable goal, but it’s not an excuse to eliminate competition or declare individuals unable to make their own decisions. After all, there has not been a single outbreak of foodborne illnesses from food sold under these exemptions.
Mississippians who want to purchase food directly from a farmer or rancher, fully aware that it did not pass through traditional government barriers, should be allowed to do so.
This column appeared in the Starkville Daily News on August 21, 2020.