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New ‘cottage food’ rules could make it easier for people to get into the business

More jams, jellies and baked goods could end up in farmers markets if an ordinance to reduce permit fees for "cottage food" vendors passes the Anchorage Assembly.

Those producers, who typically are small in scale and sell items like baked goods, jams, jellies and fermented food made in home kitchens, pay $310 under current municipal rules to operate. The ordinance, scheduled to be considered by the Assembly Tuesday, would lower the fee to $50.

The change is part of an overhaul of the city's rules for retail foods made in homes, according to DeeAnn Fetko, deputy director of the city's Department of Health and Human Services. With farmers markets growing in popularity, some cottage food vendors have run into conflict with the high permit price and confusing rules over what they can and cannot sell.

Cottage food vendors under both existing rules and the new rules can make foods in home kitchens if their yearly sales are less than $25,000 and they produce "low risk" foods that are unlikely to cause illness. Most other foods must be prepared in commercial kitchens.

The state food code, which covers all areas outside of Anchorage, allows for small-scale vendors to sell without a permit. The city requires a permit for all food sales except vendors selling fresh whole fruits and vegetables.

Fetko said the city plans to update its own cottage food regulations to more closely mirror the state version.

"It's about balancing the needs of the business community with public safety," she said.

Small-scale vendors make up a small but growing segment of farmers market participants. Alex Davis, who runs the Center Market at the Mall at Sears, said operating as a cottage food vendor can be a start for someone who's interested in entering into the food business but unable to afford a commercial kitchen. He said for others it's a way to make money on the side.

Mark Butler, co-chair and co-founder of the Spenard Farmers Market, said many of the small food vendors at the market only sell for four or five months out the year. He said the steep fee, which covers the entire year, is too expensive for most vendors who are usually just working part-time.

Butler said last year there was "real inconsistency" in enforcement from municipal health inspectors. He said some vendors were seemingly targeted by inspectors who would point out rules "that didn't seem to exist anywhere."

Davis, who operates A.D. Farms in Palmer, said he finds the Anchorage regulations and state rules together are confusing.

"There is not an explanation for it, nor is there any law that seems to be easy to read," he said of the Anchorage regulations, "and I think that causes some problems."

Fetko said the department is working separately to update the rules to provide clarity to vendors. Meetings were held over the winter to explain the regulations to vendors.

She said leadership at the department is supportive of having cottage food vendors in the city.

"We heard from folks that the fee didn't seem to fit what they were doing," Fetko said. "And we're trying to be responsive."

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