Small cottage food businesses frustrated with municipality regulations
Walk around any Anchorage farmers’ market, and you’re likely to find a few examples of cottage foods: jellies, pickles and trendy fermented tea “kombucha” that are made in small batches.
Zip Kombucha is a vendor at the Spenard Farmers’ Market. Owner Jessie Janes said he was properly licensed by the state, but was later shut down for two weeks because he was not licensed by the Municipality of Anchorage. He said the process to get properly permitted is confusing.
“It would be great to have some sort of online filing system,” said Janes, who added that all permits must be filed at the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) headquarters.
That makes it difficult for him to change locations legally. For instance, he said he could not sell his product at the Fish Creek Festival because he would need a new permit for it, but the office is closed on Saturdays.
Janes said while the DHHS staff tried to be helpful, information he received from inspectors was inconsistent.
“You’ll talk to two different people, you’ll get two different answers,” he said. “It’s kind of like talking to the IRS.”
The owner of another stand at the market expressed similar frustration.
“Probably three different weeks in a row, I had different inspectors come and tell me different things that I needed to do, none of which were the same as what I was told the previous week,” said Allie Barker with Chugach Farm, who was selling kombucha at the market until the municipality told her she was not following its guidelines. “We’ve lost half our business and it’s been really challenging for us as it’s been for a lot of other farmers.”
She said the state of Alaska has sensible cottage food laws, but the municipality has its own as well. Barker said trying to follow both is a time-consuming and expensive process.
“There’s no clear message on exactly what needs to be done,” Barker said.
DHHS said it is excited about the cottage food industry. Moreover, it said a new food code is in the works for the municipality that will make the regulation process for cottage foods easier.
“We’re just very excited about the new cottage food proposals and hope that this helps everybody in the long run,” said Shelley Griffith, the environmental health program director for DHHS.
She said while the department wants to help small businesses thrive, it is ultimately responsible for keeping people safe. For example, Griffith said kombucha has to be closely regulated.
“It is a fermented product, so they have to watch and monitor every step of it,” she said.
Griffith said the proposed food code is currently being reviewed by a legal team. After its approval, it will move closer to becoming implemented.
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