By Christina Oatfield, Sustainable Economies Law Center Policy Director
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been having some interesting discussions with environmental health regulators, homemade food producers, commercial food producers, farmers’ market managers, and other stakeholders on our tentative legislative proposal to greatly expand the scope of homemade food sales in California to also include hot meals, fresh salads, and other perishable foods not currently on the list of allowed foods for home kitchens. We’ve been discussing this idea a lot recently, and you can catch up on the conversation by reading our previous posts here. Looking for more basic information on the existing law? Check out our Homemade Food Act page here.
We’re also having an event in Oakland on October 25 to talk about all this some more in actual conversation format. You are invited! Details and RSVP here.
Some key issues that have emerged during recent discussions about the possible expansion of homemade food sales in California include the following:
Placing Certain Responsibilities on Web Platforms that Advertise and Process Payments for Homemade Food
Web-based platforms such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, can be exploitative of workers or service providers and can pose significant safety and liability risks. Policymakers and platform users are increasingly demanding the platforms provide some protections to users and be more accountable to regulators. In some cases these platforms seek to evade certain legal, tax, and safety responsibilities by arguing that they are not providing any services; they are simply connecting customers with independent service providers who should bear these responsibilities.
A new homemade food sales law that seeks to adequately protect consumers and home cooks alike might impose some or all of the following responsibilities on web platforms that exist primarily to facilitate sales of homemade food:
Provide liability insurance for cooks or ensure that cooks using their platform have liability insurance coverage of their own, to cover any incidents of foodborne illness outbreaks. The insurance requirement could possibly also include coverage for injuries or accidents arising from cooking and delivery services.
Cooperate with health regulators by immediately providing any information relevant to tracing the source of a potential food-borne illness or to investigate suspected violations of the law generally. Additionally, web platforms would have a duty to stop facilitating online sales for a cook if a cook’s permit has been revoked.
Ensure that cooks using their platform are following the law to a certain extent - this might include verifying, annually, that the cook has a current and valid permit from the appropriate health agency. This would not include regularly monitoring the cook’s food handling practices, or other day-to-day practices of the cooks.
Respond to customer complaints related to food safety, and, where appropriate, notify health regulators.
These ideas have been received by food producers with mixed reactions, and at the Sustainable Economies Law Center we do not yet have any formal proposal regarding these types of requirements - the list above is just an open brainstorm. Some home cooks understand the challenges that have arisen from web platforms in other industries and agree that these proposed requirements should be imposed on web platforms operating in the homemade food industry. Others prefer fewer restrictions for web platforms to operate in what they consider an already complex regulatory environment for small-scale food producers.
Most small scale food producers we’ve spoken with generally agree that it’s good to encourage all involved to have insurance, regardless of whether the responsibility to carry insurance is a requirement of the food producers, third-party food sales platforms, or otherwise.
Who Will Own the Platforms?
Ownership determines to a large degree who will benefit from the success of a business and who will make decisions about how it operates. Owners of a web platform typically have a great amount of influence over important decisions such as setting fees and terms, distributing profits, and quality standards. Since home cooks are creating most of the value in the homemade food sales sector, we’ve proposed that web platforms designed specifically for facilitating sales of homemade foods be owned by the cooks - i.e. a cook-owned cooperative - or by the public as a nonprofit organization, similar to how certified farmers’ markets are structured in California. Read more about it on a previous blog here.
Very preliminary feedback on this idea has been mixed. Some cooks have responded enthusiastically and told us that they would like to participate in a cook-owned cooperative that would manage its own web platform. Others have responded with concerns that this would be too restrictive and may limit options for home cooks seeking tools to help advertise and sell their food. Some eaters and local food advocates are also enthusiastic about this concept as a means to support local economies and home cooks.
It has also been suggested that we include consumer-owned cooperatives as an allowed entity structure, in addition to cook-owned cooperatives. Consumer-owned cooperatives recognize eaters as stakeholders and offer the added benefit of broadening the base of platform ownership. This could enable web platforms to have many more members who can help finance the development and maintenance of a web platform for home-made food sales.
Other Restrictions/Requirements to Promote Health and Ecological Stewardship
During a recent town hall discussion in Orange County, some attendees suggested additional requirements of homemade food producers that we hadn’t thought about yet. One was that ingredients should be disclosed, even for hot meals that would typically not be served with a full ingredient list in a regular restaurant. Another suggestion was to prohibit disposable plastic utensils and packaging for homemade foods under this law (i.e. only require reusable plates, utensils, etc. or compostable packing materials and utensils).
We love the idea of using this law to raise the standards on transparency, health, and ecologically-sound practices in our food system! We wonder what others think about the possibility of adding on additional requirements like these. We’d also like to know of other creative ideas for using this law to help model a better food system, without imposing unreasonably strict requirements on home food businesses. Tell us what you think in the comments below or come to our next town hall!
More Nuts and Bolts
We will very soon post a follow up blog about more nuts and bolts that we’ve been discussing related to restrictions and requirements on the actual preparation of food in home kitchens. Sign up for our email newsletter here (be sure to check the ‘Food’ box) to make sure you don’t miss out!
Want to know more about what we’re thinking at the Sustainable Economies Law Center? Find our tentative detailed policy proposal on the subject available here.