Federal and state laws require that most food sold to the public be made in licensed facilities open to government inspectors. But as more people become interested in buying local food, a few states have created exemptions for amateur chefs who sell homemade goods at farmers markets and on small farms.
The exemptions have touched off a debate about how to balance the need for food safety with a dose of regulatory common sense. Supporters say they recognize food safety regulations designed for big commercial food handlers can be a burden for small-time cooks who just want to make a few extra bucks selling canned goods or other specialty products. Opponents say that without regulation, the public is at risk for food-borne illnesses.
Wisconsin lawmakers enacted the so-called Pickle Bill in February. Among other things, it allows small vendors to sell high-acid canned foods, such as pickled fruits, salsas and sauerkraut, without a license. It does not apply to low-acid canned goods, such as pickled eggs, which typically carry a higher risk of contamination.
To get a license, food processors must have approved refrigeration and ventilation systems, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, as well as meet strict cleanliness standards and consent to regular inspections. If they don't own appropriate facilities, they can sometimes rent commercial kitchens.
But even that can cost too much for people who just want to make a few extra dollars, said Joan Arnold, a retiree in Rudolph, Wis. She made a few hundred dollars last year selling jams from berries she grows in her garden before she learned of the regulations.
"I don't make that much. I'm just doing this as a hobby, to make a little bit of money," Arnold said. "I don't want to just throw the berries in the compost heap."
She's now exempt from the rules under the Pickle Bill, which applies to people who earn less than $5,000 a year from food sales. Their products, however, must be labeled as made in a facility not subject to state inspection.
Many food safety officials, however, say that label doesn't do enough to protect the public. They worry that without inspections, food made in unsanitary conditions could make people sick or expose them to unlabeled allergens.
"The two major failures in food production are temperature control and personal hygiene," said Robert Harrington, director of the Casper-Natrona County Health Department in Casper, Wyo. "If someone says they shouldn't have to follow regulations because they're making food in their home, I'd say, 'Why is your home so safe that it doesn't need that level of oversight and control?"
Those concerns haven't stopped one Western lawmaker from trying to ease regulations. Wyoming doesn't require licenses for people making "non-hazardous" foods such as jams, jellies and baked goods, but Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, wants to eliminate all restrictions when cooks sell products directly to informed consumers. Her legislation, which wouldn't apply to foods sold in stores or served to schoolchildren, was tabled during the last legislative session but she plans to reintroduce it.
"How (opponents) can possibly claim what I decide what I put in my mouth is something the government should be regulating is ridiculous," she said. "Then you're imposing on my rights as a consumer to eat the food I choose."
Lawmakers in Maine approved legislation last year exempting small chicken farmers from stringent processing rules that apply to larger poultry producers. Those with fewer than 1,000 birds don't need to use the same kind of elaborate - and costly - slaughtering facilities, but their products also must be labeled accordingly.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he introduced the bill because of interest in locally produced foods. By freeing small farms from onerous rules, he said, more customers can buy food from down the street instead of from a giant poultry processor thousands of miles away.
"Now farmers have a little more freedom to develop that relationship with their customers," he said.
Variations of the Maine law have been considered in states such as Texas and Virginia but haven't passed.
Tennessee passed a law last year that exempts charities and nonprofits from food-safety rules. However, one critic pointed out those groups might be far from small-time, perhaps feeding hundreds or thousands of people.
"If there's a problem with food safety there a lot of people might be affected," said Doug Farquhar, the program director for agriculture for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some small food processors aren't happy about the new laws either.
Ken Ruegsegger of New Glarus, Wis., bottles about 20 kinds of pickled fruits and vegetables such as peppers and carrots. He already invested in a commercial kitchen that meets licensing requirements and is charging $4 to $7 for his products to try to make back the money.
Unlicensed competitors can now make the same product in uninspected kitchens and sell it for half the price, he said.
"That could cost me thousands of dollars per year," he said. "And I'm inspected four times a year. These people could be making it in their kitchens with cats walking around. It's not fair."