Expanding Cottage Food Law: A Win-Win for Consumers, Producers and Our Local Economy

Susanne Lowen, TPSS Co-op Board Member

Maryland is not only for crabs, it is for craft brew, artisan bread, garden veggies and a cornucopia of international cuisine. Home to rich farmland and estuaries, the range of food produced in our small state rivals any, and Maryland should be at the vanguard of the burgeoning local food movement.

Over the past decade, the local food movement in the U.S. has been expanding, with cottage food laws in 49 states.*

Maryland’s Cottage Food Law, passed in 2012 and amended in 2018, limits these food products to ‘non-hazardous food’, defined in Maryland statutes as baked goods, high-acid fruit jams, preserves and jellies, fruit butters, natural honey and hard candy. Strict labeling requirements and an annual revenue cap of $25,000 apply. Sales of these products are currently limited to mail orders, direct sales from the producer’s residence, and at farmers’ markets.

Many states have far more expansive laws, such as Wisconsin which allows sales of home-made pickles, California which caps annual revenue at $50,000 – double the revenue allowable in Maryland – and Vermont, which has no sales limit and allows home cooks willing to update their kitchens with commercial equipment to sell almost any type of food.

A proposed 2019 amendment to the Maryland Cottage Food Law would allow these products to also be sold in retail grocery stores and co-ops. Maryland District 20 Delegate Lorig Charkoudian introduced the bill, HB527, in the State House and District 20 Senator Will Smith introduced the companion bill, SB290, in the Senate.

TPSS Co-op strongly supports this bill, as do the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Farm Bureau, the Montgomery County Food Council and others for good reasons: The bill would reduce the barriers to market entry for small-scale producers, strengthen our local economy by increasing the availability of locally made products, encourage greater diversity of locally-made food products, and further our food resiliency infrastructure by reducing the need for out-of-state products.

“This bill would have significant economic benefits for the state and would further improve Maryland’s thriving food and beverage business sector,” stated the Montgomery County Food Council in written testimony submitted to Maryland legislators.

“There are limited commercial kitchen production facilities currently available in our region, and the cost of accessing the space that is available can be prohibitive for smaller producers.” The Food Council further explains. “Opening up retail sales opportunities for smaller and newer producers can help these businesses establish a foothold in the market and potentially move from cottage to commercial as they scale up production.”

This win-win bill would benefit culinary entrepreneurs, small businesses, consumers, the local economy, and climate resiliency:

  • Cottage food entrepreneurs, already operating under very small profit margins, will no longer face the onerous time pressure of individual direct sales.
  • Residential food production by definition yields small batches, so these small businesses would likely market their products exclusively to individual mom-and-pop groceries, giving those stores a local edge in the highly competitive grocery market.
  • Consumers are increasingly hungry for artisan, locally-made food products that benefit the local economy and have a smaller carbon footprint.
  • Local commerce increases the money that circulates and stays in the local economy.
  • Residents will have greater incentive to grow food knowing they have an outlet for value‐added food sales, adding integral elements to our food resiliency.

Maryland is a state with a rich agricultural heritage, with bountiful estuaries, and with unexplored and under-appreciated culinary arts traditions. An expansive Cottage Food Law could place Maryland at the vanguard of the growing local food movement, paving the way for a thriving local food economy, bolstering Maryland’s tourism industry and enriching the lives of its residents.  

There will be a hearing in the Maryland House on the proposed amendment to the Cottage Food Bill this coming Wednesday, February 27.

*Pennsylvania doesn’t have a cottage food law, but the state’s Department of Agriculture allows “limited food establishments” a lot of flexibility once they meet specific guidelines.