Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Home kitchen entrepreneurship

“The City is planning to outlaw chicken slaughtering, which is currently not prohibited. The officials writing this law insist that it is currently prohibited and thus the change is not really a change, but when I ask them to tell me where it says this in the law they give me different answers, and never tell me where it states this… So it will be legal to hatch chicks and harbor chickens, but when they are too old to lay eggs or injured say with a broken beak and they cannot eat, you may not kill them. Neither may you slaughter one to eat it… A two-year old chicken is quite fine to eat and our grandparents looked for dinner in their backyards and this was fine.  At a time when hunger issues and food shortage issues are discussed everywhere, we will be required to waste this valuable food resource, usually organically grown. In this way Denver is different from the Soviet Union, where my wife (who grew up there) said no one would think of restricting the rights of the people to produce their own meat from a chicken.” 

— James Bertini, founder of Denver Urban Homesteading

Since they founded Denver Urban Homesteading over a year ago, Jim and Irina Bertini have been fighting the good food fight, which includes their initiative to "free the chickens" in the Denver metro so interested town folk can go back to raising (and slaughtering) their own poultry. They are not alone in their ongoing frustrations with food rules, going so far as to compare the quasi-political patchwork of often petty, ever-changing and unworkable food regulation on the federal, state and sometimes local levels to a food police state. Virtually all of the small farmers and food artisans I know list the daunting labyrinth of food regs as one of their biggest hurdles, though they mostly talk quietly about it among themselves.

Now a fascinating new opposition movement is going public in a big way. Rural communities in New England that have been cultivating local food economies in order to revitalize are pushing "food sovereignty" initiatives. They want federal and state food inspectors and onerous regulations out of their hair. As blogger Kimberly Hartke writes, it's necessary to clear the way for more "home kitchen entrepreneurship."

(For more, read the Sustainable Cities Collective article which begins:

"The town of Sedgwick, Maine, population 1,012 (according to the 2000 census), has become the first town in the United States to pass a Food Sovereignty ordinance.  In doing so, the town declared their right to produce and sell local foods of their choosing, without the oversight of State or federal regulation.  

What does this mean?  In the debate over raw milk, for example, the law opens the gate for consumer and producer to enter a purchasing agreement without interference from state or federal health regulators."

Or Bloomberg Business Week, which summarizes:

"Two small towns have passed ordinances that would make small-scale farmers exempt from state and federal regulations if they sell foods they process directly to consumers.")

It's clear that these communities — which are betting their futures on a revival of local food — want to simplify food business certification and oversight. It's already highly debatable whether it should be illegal for someone to make a coffee cake in their home kitchen and sell it at a community farmers market just down the block. How can we have "cottage producers" or "cottage businesses" without the cottage (by prohibiting its use and insisting instead on something called a commercial kitchen... now doesn't that sound appetizing?)

I recognize the value of professionalism, of elevating a talent to a commercial offering. But I also recognize there will always be risks associated with living and eating and that disease-causing organisms are a naturally occurring part of the environment. The question: are food safety rules realistic, decipherable and flexible enough or are they actually a trade barrier, making it difficult for small local food producers to compete even with imported items that travel halfway around the world from under-developed countries?

Should it put our mind at ease that big food manufacturing plants are occasionally inspected, along with the copious shipments of imported food and food ingredients? Or that these companies have complicated HACCP plans written by high-priced consultants and lawyers and overseen by bureaucrats? The regulations ought to be plain enough to both food producers and consumers that high priced middle men aren't required to spend hours interpreting, and then re-interpreting, them.

On that note, don't forget that tax filing deadline day is fast approaching.