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What a Pickle We Are In

Chrys Ostrander

Originally published at

A few comments about this interesting article, A Texas lawsuit hinges on this question: What, exactly, are “pickles”?, New Food Economy, July 26th, 2018, by Baylen J. Linnekin:

Cottage Food Laws, passed by states, allow people to process certain foods and sell them to the public from their home or farm kitchens with minimal licensing and facilities requirements. States are usually very reluctant to pass such laws and many of the laws that have been passed have ended up being too restrictive to be much good. Some limit the income allowed to be generated by such operations in such a way as to make it nearly impossible to make more than pocket change as revenue. Others limit the types of foods allowed to be produced to the degree that many who might otherwise benefit from such laws give up on them, not seeing the freedom to be able to create marketable products.

State governments commonly argue their reasons for being restrictive are based on concerns of food safety. What isn’t talked about is how political considerations play a role. I remember when, back in the 1990’s, Washington State wanted to change its food laws in such a way that most food that folks might want to share with friends and neighbors at Pot Luck Suppers would have to be prepared in licensed kitchens, not at home as had always been the practice. Well, we fought back against that in a campaign that startled the Washington State Department of Health with the numbers of comments we generated against the plan (with the bulk of comments coming from church groups and Grange members). Even food and farm commentator Jim Hightower weighed in with mention of our campaign during one of his radio spots at the time. In the end, we got what we demanded: No regulation of Pot Lucks and freedom to advertise public Pot Lucks– but not until after an attempt was made by a statewide restaurant association, in a closed-door session, to derail our effort. The Health Department wanted to yield to the powerful trade group, so we fired up the grassroots machinery again and defeated the effort. That was pure politics. It had nothing to do with food safety. Looking back, it was pretty crazy for the restaurant association to be worried that unregulated Pot Lucks that could be publicly advertised presented any threat to their industry since that’s exactly how Pot Lucks had always been handled in Washington and the restaurant industry flourished anyway.

Granted, Cottage Food Laws are different than Pot Lucks, but the politics are similar.

This story is about one Texas couple wants to take advantage of the state’s cottage food law by selling pickled beets, carrots, and other vegetables they grow in their market garden, but the Texas health department says that’s only legal if they want to sell pickled cucumbers. The science says that a pickled beet is just as safe as a pickled cuke, so why is the Texas health Department defending its narrow definition of ‘pickle.’

According to the Department of State Health Services, a “pickle” is a “cucumber preserved in vinegar, brine, or similar solution, and excluding all other pickled vegetables.” In case that leaves any room for doubt, the agency makes things very clear in the FAQ posted on its website: “Only pickled cucumbers are allowed,” it says. “All other pickled vegetables are prohibited.”

The author asks the questions, but does not attempt an answer. He writes “Why, for example, is the sale of mustard permissible in Texas [under the state’s cottage food law] but the sale of ketchup (which can have a similar or even lower pH [a measure of food safety]) is not? Why does California[‘s cottage food law] enumerate (and therefore permit the sale of) dehydrated vegetables, dried vegetables, and dried fruits but not dehydrated fruits?”

I surmise the answer to those and many similar questions that come to mind as one studies the myriad restrictions that states put into their cottage food laws are political in nature. I suspect that pressure on state lawmakers and regulators comes from the industrial food production sector. The pressure can be direct– industry trade associations defending their turf like in the Pot Luck example, or indirect– many officials within government whose job it is to regulate food come from the food industry and often return there when their government stints are over. Their biases and allegiances come and go with them.

One thing is certain: The industrial food sector is highly intolerant of any change that puts the right and the power to produce and sell food into the hands of ordinary, every-day folks like you and me. Don’t doubt that cottage food laws are perceived as a threat by this sector. Industrial food has consolidated its hegemony over our food system and it will view any dollar generated by a home food producer as a dollar stolen from it. It no doubt already sees cottage food laws as a threat and will work tirelessly to maintain the unreasonable restrictions written into most of the state laws even when science clearly negates the food safety concerns used to shoot down most attempts to amend cottage food laws.

What we need to remember is, the food system belongs to the people, first and foremost. Over generations, we have abdicated our role. We the People used to be the food system. Now, because capitalism, addicted to growth and consolidation, is the way in which human needs have been commoditized for corporate profit (and what human need is more fundamental than food), we find we have lost control over our food. One way to fight back is to advocate for less restrictive cottage food laws and to organize for laws that recognize our rights as people to feed each other in our own communities without government requirements that only deep-pocketed big-business ventures can afford to finance (see Maine’s Food Sovereignty Law as an example). We have the science and technology to decentralize food production and provide safe, locally-produced foods on a small scale to local customers. It’s time for the food dollars that over the past decades have gone out of our communities and built the mega-food conglomerates that now threaten our health with their over-processed, chemical-laden foods; that threaten our environment with the poisons of industrial agriculture and its major contributions to climate change; that exploit food system workers so profoundly in its relentless pursuit of profit– It’s time for those food dollars to come home. Buy local, but first, put the rules in place to allow you to.

July 31, 2018