Food and safety industries at odds over bill

Baja Salsa Production Manager Gladys Arias packages salsa made from a family recipe. The salsa is sold at local markets such as Natural Grocers and Whole Foods.

The state’s Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee gave approval to a bill this week would make it easier for entrepreneurs to sell food from their homes.

While some rejoice that they would be able to get their hands on homemade jellies and cakes like grandma used to make, others worry about stray cat hairs finding their way into products, or worse, the spread food-borne illnesses cultivating in unregulated kitchens.

Senate Bill 48, The Cottage Foods Act, introduced by Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass) would exempt small food producers from requirements that they use approved commercial kitchens to make certain “non-potentially hazardous” foods that do not require refrigeration.

The act is limited to producers who earn less than $2,500 per year on each eligible item, which includes spices, teas, dehydrated produce, nuts, seeds, honey, jams, jellies, preserves, fruit butter, baked goods and candies.

“I hope it’s going to fly,” said Mike Callicrate, who owns Callicrate Beef and Ranch Foods Direct in Colorado Springs.

Callicrate does not stand to benefit from the legislation directly, but said the spirit of the bill is what he believes in — strong local food markets that build on community connections.

“You don’t have to go back too far to find a much, much different food system than the one we have now, a much healthier food system,” Callicrate said.

He said all of the regulation came in with the industrial food model and so did most of the issues with food safety. And now most of the regulations stand as solid barriers to local, thoughtfully-produced and healthy foods.

“This bill at least brings a little bit of reason back into our food systems,” Callicrate said. “It eases impediments for small producers. It gets rid of a lot of the health department regulations.”

But, loss of health regulations is what worries Frank Schmidt, who organizes the Memorial Park Farmers’ Market.

“Years ago, I used to repair kitchen appliances,” Schmidt said. “I’ve been in homes. I’ve seen kitchens where people should not be allowed to make food for the public.”

He said he worries about food-borne illnesses and liabilities, especially for farmers’ markets and hopes the bill fails and even the smallest food producers will still have to use approved commercial kitchens.

If the bill passes, Schmidt said he would still require the food producers who sell at his market to use commercial kitchens.

“Personally, I’d sure like to know where my food is coming from,” Schmidt said.

Elvia Sandoval Caldwell sells her Sandoval’s Secret Recipe Baja Gourmet Salsa at Schmidt’s farmers’ market, where her successful salsa operation got its start.

Friends told her how great her salsa was and started asking her to make batches for parties. Then she looked into selling at farmers markets and rented space in a commercial kitchen.

“We sold out the first day,” she said.

From there, she secured some warehouse space and commercial equipment. She and her husband David made a significant financial investment in the equipment. And now she sells more than 150 gallons of salsa to stores like Whole Foods, a few local shops and some restaurants.

Her business took off and became a success story. It’s the kind of story bill sponsors Schwartz and Rep. Don Coram (R-Montrose) want to support with the new legislation, which they say will bolster entrepreneurship and encourage people to buy goods within their own communities.

Cindy Torres, president of the Colorado Farmers Market Association, said she is working with member organizers to see how the bill will impact them.

“We don’t want to stifle enterprise,” Torres said. “We depend on entrepreneurs at farmers markets and we want to make sure they have every opportunity to succeed.”

Callicrate said he hoped the legislation would pass so entrepreneurs would find it easier to get started. They would be able to test the waters with a few bags of dehydrated fruit or canned jellies before deciding to start a full-time business.

At the same time, those like Caldwell who have already jumped through all the hoops might not be completely supportive of the legislation.

“If I’m selling salsa and I have all this overhead with a commercial kitchen and someone next to me makes it at home, it feels a little unfair,” Caldwell said.

That is a minor concern, however, because she said she abides by all the health department regulations and would hope everyone would.

“It’s tricky,” Torres said. “We have to make sure we have the right risk-management procedures in place.”

She said that the only oversight farmers’ markets have had until now came from the public health departments in each community.

“If you take public health out of the equation, who has the burden?” she said.

The state association will be involved in making sure individual farmers market organizers get the training they need to identify problem foods and work with food producers.

El Paso County Public Health Director Kandi Buckland said her department is working with Schwartz to see what will need to be done if it passes.

“We wouldn’t want any canned foods like salsa or tomatoes,” Buckland said. “And we’d like to see labeling.”

Some acidic foods like salsa have a high risk of growing botulism, a toxin that can cause paralysis, if they’re not handled properly. The act, as it stands, would not exempt those foods. And the bill requires labeling that includes the producer’s address, list of ingredients warnings about allergies and a notice that it was not prepared in an approved kitchen.

“There probably is an interest,” Buckland said. “We just want to make sure the public is protected.”