Home cooks who want to sell the food they make can now do so more easily.
The Ontario government recently relaxed the rules. Until now, foods sold to the public had to be prepared in certified commercial kitchens. Recently, the Ministry of Small Business and Red Tape Reduction released guidelines to give home cooks a new opportunity to make some money.
“For many local entrepreneurs, they start with a love of food and a cherished family recipe, whether it’s grandma’s apple pie or that new take on homegrown pickles, jams and preserves and try and turn their passion into a successful business,” said Prabmeet Sarkaria, associate minister of Small Business and Red Tape Reduction in a news release.
Like the loosening of alcoholic beverage sales for restaurants (who can now sell alcohol with the purchase of a take-out food item), the initiative is designed to help small businesses during COVID-19.
A limited selection of foods can now be made in residential kitchens and sold without meeting all of the standards that govern commercial kitchens and restaurants.
However, there are some questions about the new initiative, and whether, with the pandemic crushing businesses, including food operations, the timing is right.
‘Low-risk’ items can be sold
There has likely always been an underground market for food products prepared in residential kitchens and businesses, but the new initiative allows some of this food production to go mainstream.
As of Jan. 1, and in keeping with the Health Protections and Promotion Act (HPPA) and Food Premises Regulation (FPR), you can now prepare and sell what are described as “low-risk” and non-hazardous food items that do not require “time and temperature control.”
According to the Ministry of Health, those items include most breads and buns (without fillings or meats, etc), most baked goods (but no custard), chocolate, hard candies, pickles, jams, preserves, granola, trail mix, brownies, muffins and cookies (unless the icing requires refrigeration), as well as coffee beans and tea leaves.
Anyone undertaking such food preparation must follow HPPA and FPR guidelines and will need public health inspectors to inspect their premises.
The Region of Waterloo currently has 32 public health inspectors responsible for a number of areas including food businesses. More inspectors have been hired, according to Aldo Franco, manager, health and protection investigation at the region.
While restaurants have many regulations to follow, new home-based businesses have fewer. For instance, the home businesses will not require a separate sink for handwashing only and are exempt from commercial dishwashing requirements.
And while employees working in restaurant kitchens and commercial food operations must have food-handler certification (something food businesses actively ensure that employees have and keep updated), home food businesses are exempt from food-handler training and certification.
Possible impact on other food businesses
In home kitchens, because food-handling certification is not required, common sense will have to prevail, but is that enough? It will give some consumers pause about how ingredients are handled and stored in a family kitchen setting.
For its part, public health recommends food safety training for all food businesses, according to Franco.
“We apply the same regulations and look for the same areas of food safety compliance based on the operation,” he said in an email.
Another question is whether the loosened restrictions are fair to smaller certified businesses. That is debatable. Larger food businesses likely won’t be affected, but “mom-and-pop” operations in commercial kitchens may have high rent to pay, insurance costs, significant overhead expenses, and perhaps employees’ wages and benefits.
Theoretically, their businesses, existing on razor-thin margins, could be impacted if home-based muffin makers can sell their goods online for less than the mom-and-pop businesses can.
Will neighbours in residential zones appreciate streams of cars on their streets or using their driveways as people visit home businesses to pick up their cookies, pickles or jellies?
“Home business operators are encouraged to reach out to their respective municipalities to ensure that any home-based food businesses are permitted from a licensing and zoning standpoint prior to reaching out to public health,” said Franco.
Some will work, some won’t
While some home businesses simply won’t be scalable, there are successful bricks-and-mortar food operations in Waterloo region that started as very small kitchens and have grown into larger and innovative food businesses. That’s a good thing.
The removal of red tape is no doubt another good thing in many business sectors, but time will tell if home-based food operations can meet the requirements and get up and running to make a few dollars. In that case, caveat emptor (buyer beware).