Selling Food Out of Your Home? Here’s How to Pass an Inspection

Question: How can I organize my home cake business and be ready for a Missouri state inspection? I’ve been doing cakes out of my home for more than 37 years but have just registered as a business. I know the state needs to come in and check, but I can’t find anything online, so I’m trying to prepare on my own so I’ll pass.

Answer: More states are passing “baker’s bills” that allow individuals to engage in cottage food production, much of it involving baked goods. As I wrote in 2012, more than 30 states allow some sales of food produced at home rather than in a commercial kitchen. About half of the state laws have been enacted since the recession forced many Americans to find creative ways to earn extra money.

To comply with your state’s cottage food law, start by checking with the Department of Health. “Review their licensing and regulations for food processors and producers,” advises Carol Harvey, a food business consultant and president of Palate Works.

It appears that Missouri’s cottage food laws are governed on a county-by-county basis, so you’ll need to determine which region (PDF) you’re in and what rules apply to your business. If it’s not clear, “call and insist on talking to a human, preferably at a supervisory level,” says Amy Handlin, a marketing professor and the author of Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government (Praeger, 2010). “It is as much in the state’s interest as yours to make sure you’re prepared for the inspection.”
The good news is that baked goods—breads, cakes, muffins—are less likely to spread food-borne illnesses than meat or canned products, and many of the more complex regulations that govern those types of foods won’t apply to your business. But you’ll certainly need to measure up to cleanliness and food storage standards. “Whatever you do, keep kids and pets—and their accessories—far away during the inspection,” Harvey says.

If you need help getting everything shipshape, you could hire a food consultant to come in and work with you before the inspection. Or, to keep your startup costs down, you might get some pointers from your state’s cooperative extension service. Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the service often gets overlooked by businesses, but one of its mandates is to provide practical information to small business owners. Extension services are located at each U.S. state’s land-grant universities, which in your case are Lincoln University and the University of Missouri.

A business development specialist in the extension office closest to you should have information and resources on how to prepare for a home food inspection, Harvey says. And if that’s not the case, and your efforts to find the rules are not paying off, you can always try contacting your state legislator. His or her office should have staff members available to help you navigate through the bureaucracy and get your company off to the right start.

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