County may soon regulate home kitchens

Board of supervisors discusses 'microenterprise home kitchen' program

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Workers from Avila Farms of Hollister set up a table at the first-ever Farmer's Market at Ramsay Park in Watsonville recently. The Hollister Certified Farmers’ Market will return to downtown on May 5. Photo: Tarmo Hannula

San Benito County officials are in the process of evaluating whether to opt in on a state law that creates a permitting, approval and inspection process for home kitchens that serve meals to the public.

Under the state’s Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) law of 2018, counties in California can individually decide if they want to adopt an ordinance or resolution allowing such home businesses.

The state law allows residents of single-family homes to operate MEHKOs in their residence, cooking meals or other food items for sale to the public. Annual revenue from an approved MEHKO may not exceed $50,000, according to an April 13 county staff report. Meals are capped at 30 meals per day, or 60 meals per week.

MEHKO home cooks must be certified for safe food handling, and participating home kitchens must pass inspection before being permitted, county staff said. Prepared food can be delivered, picked up or consumed at the producer’s home.

But these requirements and permitting opportunities would be in place only if the county supervisors vote to approve a local MEHKO ordinance. At the April 13 meeting, the subject was agendized for a brief discussion. Because the county’s approval of a MEHKO program would require the cities of Hollister and San Juan Bautista to participate, the supervisors directed staff to confer with representatives of those cities before adopting a binding ordinance.

If the supervisors were to take no action or a vote to opt out of the state MEHKO program, then these home kitchen operations would not be authorized throughout the county. Some county officials and members of the public suspect that some residents are already operating unpermitted MEHKOs.

“Frankly, people are already doing this. It would give us more of an oversight if we do open up to this,” Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki said at the April 13 meeting.

Only a handful of counties in California so far have opted in for the state’s MEHKO program, according to county staff. In the Bay Area, Alameda County, City of Berkeley and San Mateo County have opted in but are not yet issuing permits.

If San Benito County opts in, the county environmental health office would have to come up with its own procedures to establish a permitting and inspection process for local MEHKOs.

“Some (counties) have decided not to (opt in) simply because there isn’t enough revenue generation,” said County Environmental Health Director Darryl Wong. “It’s costly for the (MEHKO) operators and for the counties as well.”

The state law allows some health code exemptions for MEHKOs, according to county staff. These include inspections limited to once per year, by appointment; no handwashing requirements in the kitchen area; no exhaust hood ventilation requirements; and the county or city may not impose any prohibitions on the operation.

MEHKOs can only sell directly to the consumer, and cannot provide catering or wholesale services, county staff said. They are also prohibited from advertising.

The program is distinct from the state’s existing “cottage food operations” law established in 2013. This allows residents to prepare low-risk food products such as bread, fruit jams and dried fruit in their private home kitchens, for sale to consumers.

“These are foods that do not support the rapid growth of bacteria that would make people sick when held outside of refrigeration temperatures,” says a fact sheet from the California Department of Public Health.

Residents can currently gain permits from local authorities for cottage food operations. One such permitted kitchen is that of Courtney Lopez, who operates The Chaste Cupcake out of her Hollister home.

Lopez said a distinct advantage of a MEHKO program is that it would allow home kitchens to produce and sell a wider variety of meals and food products—including those that might require refrigeration.

“For instance, now I can’t use milk in a frosting,” said Lopez, who bakes and sells cupcakes and other goods out of her home. “I can’t use anything with a raw egg, like a custard, because it has to be refrigerated. Under MEHKO, those restrictions wouldn’t be so tight, so it would open it up to me being able to offer a broader range of frostings and fillings.”

Lopez added that existing cottage food regulations are pretty strict. They require the kitchen to be trained in food safety, and cooks must provide ingredient lists to county authorities.

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