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With continued interest in local foods and artisan-crafted food products, many folks share dreams of launching a farm-based food business. While these food businesses are increasing in number, the reality of navigating the regulations surrounding commercial sales of canned and processed food remains complex and potentially expensive. The key is to take your time and ask a lot of questions before breaking ground or spending money.
These regulations and the necessity of a commercial kitchen generally kick in when we start talking about processed food for public sale. Most likely, you can sell a bag of beautiful heirloom tomatoes as raw produce directly to a customer without having to follow a set of highly detailed regulations. It’s once you transform those tomatoes into salsa or soup that food regulations come into play. These regulations can come from both the state and the county or local levels. Regulations on commercial-food kitchens and processing items for sale typically fall within your state’s health service department—the department that also inspects restaurants—or possibly the agriculture department.
The items you’re planning to make for sale will determine the type of kitchen facility needed. Typically, a commercial kitchen is not one size fits all food: Most states have varying requirements based on what you plan to do. For example, salsa might require simpler kitchen regulations because canning high-acid items is generally a less-complex, lower-risk process than preparing a lower-acid product, like creamed soup. A commercial kitchen must be separate from your home kitchen, but it can be located in your home or a converted farm outbuilding.
However, you most likely don’t know exactly what food products you want to make just yet. In this case, take the time to slowly test and develop your product and research and write a plan for the kitchen facility. Look for deals on used equipment at auctions and second-hand appliance stores. It’s helpful to connect with other local on-farm kitchens to garner advice on the start-up process. You also can potentially save money by renting space at an existing commercial kitchen. This will also give you an opportunity to think about your needs.
Additionally, check existing cottage-food legislation in your state, which legalizes specific items (typically non-refrigerated bakery products and high-acid canned items, such as jams and salsa) prepared in a home kitchen for public sale.
If your path does lead to a commercial-kitchen installation, get multiple opinions from state and local regulators and collect this information in writing. I’m continually amazed at how two different state employees can look at the same regulation and interpret things differently. Protect yourself with thorough, documented research to help avoid costly mistakes.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Hobby Farms.