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New law eases restrictions on local food makers

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Melissa Humble and her husband moved back to Alabama in March 2020, just before much of the state shut down.

Looking for a way to earn income and stay home to protect her immunocompromised spouse from COVID-19, Humble began baking and selling French macarons and other treats.

HumbleBee Bakes is now a regular at farmers markets around Headland in Henry County, and Humble locally sources the fruit, jellies and eggs that go into her products.

But the state’s laws regulating the cottage food industry were limiting. It capped gross sales at $20,000 a year and didn’t allow for Internet sales.

That online restriction especially hurt Humble around the holidays.

“I have had so many people ask about purchasing online and shipping, and that just wasn’t an option,” Humble said. She estimates she lost about $400 in sales in December from people who contacted her wanting to order her macarons.

Starting this month, those restrictions will be eased under Senate Bill 160, approved in the spring. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored the law change.

“It takes the ridiculous shackles off of people who want to start home businesses,” Orr said. “This could be the first step, the incubation of new small businesses in the home.”

The bill passed both the House and Senate easily.

Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellvile, sponsored a separate bill to increase the goods allowed under “cottage foods.” Those expanded goods, including dry baking mixes and coffees, are in Orr’s legislation. Items can’t require temperature control or include meats.

The law says sellers have to take a food safety course through the Alabama Department of Health, and all items have to include a label stating the food isn’t inspected by the state or local health department.

“The cottage food law allows people to work from home preparing and selling food without having to undergo the licensing and inspection process that a commercial kitchen or restaurant must undergo,” Kiel said. “It allows folks to purchase cookies, cakes and other goods from people they trust. This often acts as a business incubator, with many of these small business owners going on to open full catering or retail locations.”

Later in August, Humble will start taking online orders.

“I ultimately would love to have a brick-and-mortar (store), but that’s not something that is easy or necessarily smart to jump right into,” Humble said. “The cottage food production bill will allow me to build my company until I am to a point where I need to expand and I’ve outgrown my house.”

The Virginia-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit, assisted Orr with the bill and pushes for fewer restrictions in other states.

The institute says that most cottage-food producers are women and even a small amount of extra income from a cottage food business can be helpful to lower-income households struggling during the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic led many Alabamians to want to start a homemade food business, but many realized how difficult it is to open up shop because of onerous state rules and regulations,” said Andrew Meleta, an institute associate, in a written statement. “This law will be especially helpful as Alabamians recover from the economic damage of the pandemic. Cottage food laws create flexible job opportunities, especially for women, and support local economies.”

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