Is it legal to sell homemade food in California? Do I need a Permit to Sell Homemade Foods?

Brad Nakase, Attorney

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When Catherine was a little girl, her grandmother taught her how to make homemade jam using strawberries they bought in the San Joaquin Valley. It was the most delicious jam Catherine had ever tasted, and she remembered the sweet, chunky consistency as an adult. When Catherine gave birth to her own daughter, she wanted to pass down her grandmother’s recipe and carry on the family tradition of jam-making. One day, she and her daughter gave a batch of fresh-made jam to their neighbor. The neighbor loved the jam so much that she suggested Catherine start selling it to the community. While flattered, Catherine was confused. She did not know or understand California’s laws regarding selling homemade food. Could she sell it at a farmer’s market, or would she have to go through a grocery store? Making her food and selling it was a step above your average lemonade stand. Can you cook food at home and sell?

Making and Selling Food in California

In the United States, it is very common for Americans to make their own food and sell it in their communities. Small but mighty, this type of business is known as the homemade or “cottage food” industry. There are many reasons why an individual may want to make and sell their own food. One of the popular trends is to eat healthy and local, paying attention to responsible food sourcing. Overall, consumers are more concerned with the origin of their food and the people who make it. Therefore, the cottage food industry has boomed in recent years. As a state, California has emerged as the leader of the cottage food industry nationwide. The state’s interest and promotion of the phenomenon is evidenced by the California Homemade Food Act of 2012. Additional laws passed in 2013, 2018, and 2021 have given cottage food producers increased freedom. Recently, laws have seen the increase in sales caps for cottage food producers, as well as the ability for them to ship their products anywhere in California.

In fact, California is one of the only states to allow individuals to sell homemade meals, including meals that contain meat. This is thanks to the Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) law of 2019. However, this law only applies to cities and counties that have opted to pass laws regulating microenterprise kitchens. So, it is not universal. In California jurisdictions where MEKHO has not been enacted, selling home-cooked meals is illegal.

California remains, however, a paradise for the cottage food industry. According to county health department records, as of early 2022, there were almost 5,000 cottage food businesses and 150 microenterprise home kitchens operating in California.

Homemade Food Regulations in California

It is typical for states to regulate the cottage food industry, and California is no exception. In California, cottage food producers are allowed to sell “low-risk” foods. These are items that do not require temperature control to be consumed safely. The list of acceptable foods has been approved by the Department of Public Health. The following items are considered safe and “low-risk”:

  • Baked goods
  • Candy
  • Syrup
  • Mustard
  • Nut butter
  • Pastries
  • Preserves and jams
  • Caramel corn
  • Honey
  • Granola
  • Crackers
  • Pretzels
  • Coffee beans
  • Cereals

Some of the prohibited foods include pickles, juices, and meat products. California cottage food producers may not sell these items.

However, in cities and counties that allow microenterprise home kitchens, home chefs can sell meals that contain meat. They may also use open-air barbecues and wood-burning stoves to prepare food. That said, all food must be “prepared, cooked, and served on the same day.” It is important to note that even operations under MEKHO are forbidden from selling pickled foods, raw oysters, and producing dairy products.

Homemade Food Categories in California

The state of California divides its cottage food industry into a two-tier system. The first tier, known as Class A, permits the sale of homemade food to customers at farmers’ markets, festivals, and through home delivery. The second tier, known as Class B, permits third-party sales in retail stores like restaurants and grocery markets. Before 2021, both tiers put the limit on annual gross revenue at $50,000. Thanks to the passage of Assembly Bill 1144, the new annual limits are $75,000 for Class A and $150,000 for Class B. The new law also permits cottage food producers in both tiers to sell their products across California county lines. Cottage food producers are now also able to sell their products online and send them via mail to customers and third-party sellers.

The law, however, is much harsher when it comes to microenterprise home kitchens. Home chefs may only sell directly to customers from home. This would include takeout or dine-in. Not only are these operations limited to making $50,000 per year, but they also are limited to selling no more than 30 meals a day, or 60 meals each week. Third-party delivery systems are only permitted if the customer has a physical or mental disability.

In order to operate in California, both cottage food producers and microenterprise home kitchens need to get a permit from their county department of health. To receive this permit, they will first need to do a food processor course that has been approved by the California Department of Public Health. In order to receive a Class A permit, cottage food producers have to perform a self-certification checklist. It is not required to have a home inspection. This is only necessary in the event of a customer complaint or there is an investigation into a food-borne illness. Fees for permits are dependent on the county, but most range between $100 to $150 per year.

In order to receive a Class B permit, Californian cottage food producers need to pass an annual physical inspection. Again, permit fees vary by county, but typically cost between $150 to $250 per year. Separate documentation is required for those who use their own water supplies or septic systems. Smoking is not allowed in the kitchens, and pets are also prohibited from being in the kitchens. In California, cottage food producers and microenterprise home kitchens can only employ one non-family employee.

Questions about Homemade Food Sales in California

Can I sell refrigerated baked goods?

Under Cottage Food Class A, cottage food producers cannot sell homemade baked goods that need to be refrigerated. Similarly, Class B producers cannot sell homemade baked goods that need to be refrigerated. However, microenterprise home kitchens can sell refrigerated homemade baked goods so long as the food is sold on the day it is made.

Can I sell meat?

Under Cottage Food Class A, cottage food producers cannot sell meat. Similarly, Class B producers cannot sell meat. However, microenterprise home kitchens can sell meat if it is provided in meals.

Can I sell pickled foods?

Under Cottage Food Class A, Food Class B, and for microenterprise home kitchens, it is illegal to sell pickled foods.

Can I sell low-acid canned goods?

Under Cottage Food Class A, Food Class B, and for microenterprise home kitchens, it is illegal to sell low-acid canned goods.

Can I sell fermented foods?

Under Cottage Food Class A, Food Class B, and for microenterprise home kitchens, it is illegal to sell fermented foods.

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