Pie

Want to sell homemade pies in Connecticut? Not so fast. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia / November 6, 2013)

Let's say you're a really good home baker, so good that all your friends want what you're making and insist on paying you for those cakes or pies or cookies.

In a whole bunch of states, from Rhode Island to California, that wouldn't be a terrible problem. In Connecticut, you'd be breaking the law.

You might well get a call from a Connecticut health or consumer protection official, warning that the only place baked goods can legally be made here is in a state-licensed-and-inspected commercial kitchen.

That's what happened to Diana Gomez a couple of years ago. Today, she's one of a growing cadre of home bakers and sympathetic lawmakers looking to bring Connecticut's food production regulations into line with 21st Century economic reality and the trend toward thinking and eating locally.

It's not going to be easy.

State Rep. Mary Mushinsky is one of the legislators looking to reform Connecticut's home-food restrictions and she warns state agency officials feel "more comfortable with traditional, centralized food production because it's easier to regulate."

Gomez is a 34-year-old single mother from Fairfield who was looking to make some extra income from her home baking efforts. "I got started baking because of my son's birthday cakes," she explains. Gomez became so skilled that her friends started asking her to bake stuff for them.

"But when I started trying to sell [her home-baked goodies], I found I couldn't do that," she says.

The state and local officials who nixed her plans suggested she rent space in a commercial kitchen. Gomez says several restaurants turned her down, and an caterer wanted to charge her $20 an hour, an expense she says can add up way too fast when you're waiting for dough to rise or bake.

That's when Gomez realized that what Connecticut needs is what something like 42 other states already have: Cottage Food Laws that actually encourage people to create home-based food businesses. According to Gomez and others, a lot of Connecticut folks who lost jobs or income because of the Great Recession want to be able to start their own home-based food production businesses.

Their attempts in the 2013 General Assembly to get such legislation passed ran head on into a very stubborn bureaucracy.

"On a national level, there has been an increase in 'cottage-type' food production businesses in an effort to provide economic stimulus and create jobs," state Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen admitted during legislative testimony last February.

"Unfortunately," Mullen went on, "when these types of businesses are permitted to be operated by individuals with potentially no food production background, no food safety education, or inadequate food processing equipment, it diminishes the efforts of federal, state and local regulatory agencies that are tasked with ensuring the food supply in our nation is safe for human consumption."

Of course, there are plenty of critics of our food regulatory system who argue all those agencies aren't doing such a bang-up job of protecting our food supply.

A report put out last week by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group warned that an estimated 48 million Americans get sick every year from tainted food. The drumbeat of news stories about food-related illnesses has become almost routine in the past year: diseased chicken; bad bagged salad; and putrid peanut butter. Cucumbers and frozen berries and cheese have all made people sick in the past 12 months.

"The number of such illnesses... has remained stagnant for at least five years," the study concluded.

The regulatory theme behind opposition to home-made foods being sold to consumers is that they're not as safe as commercial products made in commercial kitchens.

"Many of the food-safety laws regulating food production in the United States were designed as one-size-fits-all regulations," explained the authors of an August 2013 study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. "Commercial food production is almost always required to take place in a certified commercial kitchen."

"For some food production, this requirement makes sense," the report admits. "But not all food production is high risk." The Harvard researchers pointed out that things like baked goods, jams and jellies "do not present the same food safety risks as other processed foods."A couple of years ago, Connecticut did loosen up its regulations far enough to allow farmers to sell jams, jellies, preserves and things like pickles and hot sauce to people who come to that farm, but only if those products were made from fruit or veggies grown right there.

Except the farmer would also have to have his or her water tested, have a lab test on the final recipe, and have documented proof of having completed a state-approved food safety course. (Maple syrup made at the farm would, thank goodness, be exempt from state and local inspections.)