Bill Marler, the litigious Harpy* of companies which cause food-borne illness, has an interesting interview available at Blisstree.com. (I do mean Harpy as a sincere compliment. Careless food producers deserve eternal torment) Mr. Marler has some excellent guidance for afficiados of small/fresh/local eaters – your food might not necessarily be safer:
“Size matters, when it comes to food safety. A company has an opportunity to increase food safety when they’re more profitable, when they’ve created systems, and when they have the bulk and the wealth to make their products safer.”
Food producers should read the entire interview carefully and consider it superb, free legal guidance for their own business ventures.
Coincidentally in the news today, California’s state assembly has become the latest to introduce a cottage food law, which will allow in-home kitchens to be used for some limited food processing of products destined for retail sale. California’s cottage law is the latest in a trend of similar resolutions being passed by state legislatures all across the country as a means to lower the barriers to entry for small-scale food producers and innovators. It is precisely these kinds of alternative food enterprises to which Marler refers in his interview.
If the enterprises which are facilitated by cottage food laws are intended to be embryonic businesses, then small scale food advocates should perhaps choose their nomenclature more wisely. Whether new market entrants care to acknowledge it or not, making food is a very serious business. “Cottage foods” carry a strong implication that goods produced using these laws are made unprofessionally or amateurishly. This esteem is bad for the small-scale brand, which is by now absolutely legit and economically viable. I think it also sets a bad precedent for those who seek to incubate a product under these cottage laws.
Say what you will of Big Food, but they put forth more energy and attention into immediate food safety threats created by biological pathogens than a local producer or a local purveyor. Small scale producers do not dedicate the resources to accommodate critically important biological countermeasures. Others are simply new to the business of food production or food processing and are not even aware of their absolute legal obligation to produce foods with zero defects.
Regardless of the reason, there is no doubt that a food safety gap exists between smaller, new producers and big established ones.The gap does not manifest in more dangerous food necessarily (though I would love to see data). I simply mean that in my experience, too many small scale producers are skeptical of rigorously implementing HACCPs, GAPs, and other legal risk management practices when I suggest they do so.
There is a certain naivete among them regarding food safety that I think is ultimately bad for business. Washing your hands before you make food is not a HACCP plan. If you want to make food professionally, you need to think like a pathogen, and this requires a not-insignificant amount of training, education, and attention to detail.
Small-scale producers not only need to be more circumspect, they need to create the aura that they are not loner weirdos making pickles in their basements. Better nomenclature than “cottage food” might be a great start, but antiseptic handling practices needs to follow right behind. Cargill can sustain a food borne illness outbreak. A single mother of three making tamales for some extra income in her kitchen cannot.
I am cautiously optimistic about cottage food in general. It is always good when innovators are enabled and even encouraged by the law to enter the market, which is an all too rare event in our food system. I am very reticent, however, they can or even will exploit the wonderful opportunity with the sense of gravity and responsibility it deserves.
In case you are interested, Food Safety News writer Vade Donaldson wrote a great article a few months back on the small-scale/safe food issue. Read the whole thing.
*I so wanted to put in a link to Bricktop’s “Nemesis Speech” from the movie Snatch, but Lisa prudently talked me out of it due to NSFW language. Woulda been perfect though.