July 28, 2020
By Timothy Sandefur
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed legislation last week to allow home-based food businesses to advertise online. At a time when the national emergency is shaking up food supplies, it’s an important step toward making sure people can get the food they need—and that entrepreneurs can earn the money they need to pay the bills. Championed by our friends at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, the change in the law allows people who make and sell food from their home kitchens to sell up to $35,000 without falling under the state’s more restrictive rules for large-scale businesses.
That’s important, given that so many Mississippians are, like the rest of us, having to stay home because of the pandemic—and are being forced to find new and innovative ways to provide for themselves and their families. But the massive disruption to the nation’s food supply isn’t just presenting a challenge to home-based businesses. It’s also a threat to the operations of major food suppliers, thanks in part to America’s antiquated food regulatory system, much of which traces back to the Great Depression, almost a century ago.
One consequence of these restrictions is that in many cases, food makers can’t sell safe and nutritious food to customers because their products have to go through an expensive and time-consuming federal inspection process, first. Beef, for example, must be inspected by USDA officials at certain federally approved industrial meat plants, and there aren’t many of those.
One innovative idea to avoid this problem is to allow cattle ranchers to market beef directly to customers by selling “shares” in cattle. The idea is that people can buy part of a living steer, and then when it’s slaughtered at a safe state-based facility, receive the beef directly. Since there are more of these facilities than the federal ones, this process allows customers access to cheaper meat without the delay associated with federal processing. Wyoming recently passed the Food Freedom Act, which allows this process and also allows other kinds of foods to be made at home and sold in stores, so long as customers are informed that it wasn’t made in a commercial kitchen.
Wyoming’s law and a similar law recently passed in Maine were the models for the Goldwater Institute’s own Food Freedom Act, included in our new toolkit, Revitalizing America: A Legislative Guide to Recovering from Coronavirus. Our proposal improves access to food without compromising safety. It allows homemade food products to be sold without pre-inspection, as long as customers are fully informed. It doesn’t eliminate existing safety standards, but allows private kitchens to compete. As for meat, it allows the sale of “shares,” and also allows the sale of live animals, and the sale of rabbit, lamb, chicken, and farm-raised fish.
Obviously, everyone wants food to be safe, but requiring pre-inspection of facilities and burdensome labeling and packaging rules can slow the process and make it too expensive for many potential food producers to provide the meals that people need in the midst of a record-breaking economic downturn.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.