January 5, 2011

GEORGE SMITH: License requirements muddle effort to sell local foodstuffs

A lot of food criminals live in Maine.

Did you bake bread or pastries for your church Christmas fair? Sell your pickles at the community craft fair? Offer your jams and jellies at the school fundraiser?

Law breakers, every one of you!

Maine’s Department of Agriculture may choose to ignore you, but the law applies to all, no matter what you make, how much you make, or how you sell it.

The sale of all home-cooked products requires a license from the Department of Agriculture. And there are many obstacles on the path to a license. Here’s one story from Barbara Skapa, a licensed cheesemaker in Mount Vernon.

Skapa is a savvy international businesswoman, winner of the 1989 International Pioneer of the Year Award from the Maine World Trade Association in recognition of her innovative efforts to develop commercial opportunities through her mushroom company, Mycelles Inc.

To make and sell her cheese, Skapa must have licenses, renewable annually, one for the cheese and another called home processor.

In 2010, she got into trouble when the state inspector noticed on a small shelf a few jams and jellies for sale. 

“The rules for jams and jellies are so stringent that they are discouraging to very small producers,” says Skapa. “Each jam/jelly recipe has to be tested by Dr. Al Bushway at Orono. Cost $10 each. Labels have to (include) ingredients, net weight or volume, maker’s name, address and zip.

“You have to have a water test — cost about $35. You have to have the license — cost $20 per year. If you want to bake dog biscuits for sale, the cost is much higher, $75, ‘because of nutritional concerns’ per (the state inspector). And not for humans?”

I checked all of this out myself, starting with the Department of Agriculture’s website.

When I tried a search for “cheese license” the first item up was about a 2004 event for Maine cheesemakers hosted by first lady Karen Baldacci.

Eventually, I located the rule governing cheesemaking. It’s 78 pages long! Then I found a confusing application calling for separate licenses for products ranging from cheesecake to chewing gum. So I called the department.

Michelle Newbegin helpfully explained the requirements for jams and jellies. Turns out Skapa got it exactly right. If I get a bit of inspiration while making my raspberry jam with Bushway’s pre-approved license and decide to toss in some blackberries, well, that’s a violation of the law.

Newbegin also told me the law provides no exemptions for those who produce small quantities of products such as jams and jellies, but the department chooses to ignore those folks.

I learned that, with the proper license, I can sell my products in my home, or allow them to be sold at a retail establishment, but I can’t sell them off-premises myself without a mobile vendors license.

For cheese, I talked to the very helpful Diane Perry, who informed me that a completely separate facility is required and can be used for nothing but cheesemaking. And if you’re getting the milk from your own cow or goat, well, that’s another license and inspector.

So here’s how it goes. If I collect milk from my cow, make it into cheese and sell that cheese outside my home, I need a home processor’s license, a cheesemaker’s license, a mobile vendor’s license and a license for my cow. Holy cow!

And then there’s the required water safety test, plus certification that I am in compliance with the Maine Subsurface Wastewater Disposal Rules and have an annual inspection of my premises.

I was particularly amused by Skapa’s labeling tale of woe. Her label initially noted that her cheese is “unpasteurized.” She was required to change that to “not pasteurized.” And her cheese is actually pasteurized.

So, here we have some of those “roadblocks” to a thriving economy that Gov.-elect Paul LePage wishes to remove. Clearly, if Maine wants to encourage us to buy local products, then the laws and rules must make it a lot easier for people to make and sell those products.

Most of these rules should exempt small producers, and the entire licensing process and implementation of the rules should be privatized.

My wife, Linda, says she’ll check out the jams and jellies recipes for half-price, $5, and they can be e-mailed to her. How many different jam recipes can there be, for Pete’s sake?

I don’t worry about getting poisoned by Skapa’s cheeses, jams, or jellies. It’s time to decriminalize Maine’s home cooks.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. You can read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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