Relax rules on ‘cottage food’ entrepreneurs

Photo by Mark Coleman

The following commentary was originally published in West Hawaii Today on Nov. 4, 2023, and in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald on Nov. 5, 2023.

Hawaii is one of the most challenging states in which to start a business. Oodles of regulations and taxes and high housing, labor and shipping costs all conspire to hamstring aspiring entrepreneurs.

Even folks who simply want to sell homemade food products must jump through numerous hoops. Considering that one of the state’s official goals is to boost local food production, that just doesn’t seem right.

For example, imagine you have an auntie in Ka‘u who wants to start selling her famous lilikoi jam. She’s an excellent cook, and the neighbors often compliment her jams and jellies when she gives them as gifts.

One of her neighbors tells a cousin on Maui how amazing the jams are, and this cousin gets in touch with your auntie to buy a few jars through the mail.

But stop right there. State law prohibits homemade foods from being sold through the mail unless they were made in a commercial kitchen.

Commercial kitchens can cost between $20 and $50 an hour to rent, and often serve large catering and events businesses, which limits their availability for mom-and-pop bakers and cooks. Likewise, few commercial kitchens exist in rural areas, which limits opportunities for rural entrepreneurs.

Your auntie could sell her jams to buyers in person, like at a swap meet or farmers market. But again, she may not label and consign them at a coffee shop, restaurant or other local business unless she makes them in a commercial kitchen and has a “food establishment” permit.

State rules for meats, seafood, pickled foods and some sauces are even tougher. No one can sell homemade poke or barbeque, even to a relative or neighbor, unless it has been made in a commercial kitchen and meets other state standards.

Yes, customers should not have to worry about eating toxic foods, but do these rules really keep people safe?

The national Institute for Justice, which tracks data on homemade “cottage” food laws, says there have been no confirmed cases of foodborne illness from cottage foods in California, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah or Wyoming — all states with relaxed homemade food laws.

Of course, food safety remains a legitimate concern, but that by itself is not a sufficient reason to subject local homemade food sellers to such harsh regulations.

Tackling this issue in the 2023 Hawaii Legislature was state Sen. Dru Kanuha of the Kona, Ka‘u and Volcano areas. Kanuha joined with other lawmakers to introduce Senate Bill 756, which they called the Access to Local Food Act.

The bill would have simplified and streamlined regulations on Hawaii’s cottage foods community along the lines suggested here, and helped fulfill the state’s goal of boosting local food production.

As the bill stated in its preamble, “The Legislature finds that local food production is integral to the state’s economic development and food security.”

The good news is the bill passed the Senate unanimously. The bad news is it failed to gain traction in the House. So the idea remains for state lawmakers to pursue and implement.

Talk alone won’t make it happen. Hawaii lawmakers should revisit the Access to Local Food Act bill in 2024 to expand opportunities for local food entrepreneurs — like your imaginary auntie in Ka‘u.

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