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How to become an Illinois cottage food operator

Cottage food operations are a simple way to generate income because select foods can be prepared at home
Cottage food operations are a simple way to generate income because select foods can be prepared at home

DECATUR, Ill. — Grandma’s blue-ribbon apple-pie recipe may still be winning awards and people always compliment your secret ingredient BBQ spice blend, but shifting from being a home cook to a small business requires a leap of faith, and a financial investment, not everyone can make.

The expansion of Illinois’ cottage food laws allows entrepreneurs and foodies looking for a side business to test their product by selling it on a smaller scale at farmers markets. Under the law, individuals can skip prohibitive start-up costs while still following food-safety regulations in a home kitchen.

“We get a lot of questions from individuals who are interested in developing a food business,” said Caitlin Mellendorf, Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator. “Cottage food operations are a simple way to generate income because select foods can be prepared at home.”

The popularity of farmers markets continues to rise as consumers want to know more about producers and explore unique, local foods.

In support of local agriculture and small business development, the Illinois Cottage Foods Operation law was enacted in 2012. The original list of allowed foods, primarily select baked and canned goods, grew in 2018 to include chilled foods, canned tomato items and more.

“While breads, pastries, cookies, jams and jellies are some of the most common cottage foods, the list has been expanded since the law was first written,” Mellendorf said. “Anyone interested in sharing a favorite recipe with the public should consider starting a cottage food operation.”

To get started, interested cottage food operators must register their operation with the county health department where they will be preparing food. They also will need a Certified Food Protection Managers Certificate to show their understanding of food-safety regulations, and to serve samples they must complete training for an Illinois Sampling Certificate.

“Because of the food-safety elements of the law, Illinois Extension often assists individuals in understanding how to meet those requirements,” Mellendorf said. “Extension offices also provide the Certified Food Protection Manager class and exam.”

All home canned products must have pH equilibrium 4.6 or lower. To meet this food safety requirement, operators must submit their recipes to a commercial laboratory for testing or use tested water bath canning recipes from the USDA or the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Steps to becoming a cottage food operator in Illinois:

• Review products that can be sold under the Cottage Food Act.

• Register with your local county health department.

• Get your Food Service Sanitation Manager’s Certificate.

• Package and label all items for sale properly.

• Submit original recipes for testing.

• Make a display placard with the required home kitchen wording.

• Get a Farmers Market Food Sampling Certificate if you plan on handing out samples.

• Owner, employee, or family member must be present at farmers market for sales.

For additional information, food testing labs and detailed cottage food operation regulations, visit “From Garden Gates to Dinner Plates” at web.extension.illinois.edu/cottage or the Illinois Stewardship Alliance at ilstewards.org/policy-work/illinois-cottage-food-law.

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