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Originally published May 17, 2012 at 8:52 PM | Page modified May 18, 2012 at 7:03 AM

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At-home bakers hail state's new Cottage Food Act

The Cottage Food Act of Washington would let small, home-based entrepreneurs sell cakes, cookies, jams, jellies and other so-called "low-risk" foods without requiring that they rent commercial kitchen space.

Seattle Times business reporter

Public comment

THE WASHINGTON STATE Department of Agriculture is accepting comments until Tuesday on the rule it drafted to implement the Cottage Food Act.

To read the draft rule, go to http://1.usa.gov/K3gLQA.

Written comments can be emailed to Julie Carlson at jcarlson@agr.wa.gov, mailed to her at P.O. Box 42560, Olympia, WA 98504 or faxed to 360-902-2087.

A public hearing will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Room 172 of the Natural Resources Building, 1111 Washington St. S.E., Olympia.

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For more than a year, Jennifer Greiner Clark sold cakes under the table.

Specifically, she baked them in her Ballard kitchen and not in a commercial kitchen, as the law required.

When it looked like her sales would expand beyond friends (who reimbursed her for ingredients rather than paying $150 for fancy 8-inch layer cakes), Clark looked into renting commercial kitchen space.

She found it prohibitively expensive, particularly because she also would need to pay for child care. At home, she bakes and decorates after her children are in bed.

Then came the Cottage Food Act of Washington, an economic blessing from the Legislature on small, home-based entrepreneurs looking to sell cakes, cookies, jams, jellies and other so-called "low-risk" foods.

"I was kind of feeling hopeless about it, and now I'm very excited," said Clark, who hopes to launch an aboveboard decorated-cake business when her 2-month-old daughter is a little older.

The Legislature passed the act last year, and it could go into effect as early as this summer.

More than 250 home-based businesses have shown interest in applying for a cottage-foods license, according to the Washington state Department of Agriculture, which administers the new law. It estimates 1,000 people eventually will apply.

The department is accepting public comments on a draft rule related to the cottage-foods law until Tuesday.

"When we first started working on it, there were 16 states with similar proposals adopted or in the works," said Kirk Robinson, assistant director of the food-safety and consumer-services division of the Department of Agriculture. "It seems to be a growing movement the last few years. Maybe the down economy has something to do with it, people looking for additional sources of income."

The draft rule stipulates which foods may be produced — among them breads, cakes, cookies, granola, nuts, jams and jellies.

It also requires annual inspections by the Department of Agriculture, which will ensure that surfaces and floors be smooth and easy to clean and that pets and children under 6 years old are kept out of the kitchen while food is prepared.

The home kitchens do not need the stainless countertops or three sinks required of commercial kitchens. And home cooks cannot sell by mail order or over the Internet. They are limited to selling products directly to consumers — from their homes, for example, or at farmers markets.

The new law also limits the revenue someone can make from a home kitchen to $15,000 a year.

Felicia Hill, a cake baker and decorator in Vancouver, Wash., who lobbied for the new law and helped advise the Department of Agriculture in drafting its rule, said the $15,000 limit is better than the $5,000 originally proposed in the Legislature.

The limit exists because the Cottage Food Act is meant to give home cooks a boost in starting a business without the burden of high overhead.

But Hill hopes it will go even higher. The $12,000 in revenue she had last year was not enough to cover her costs, which included the use of a commercial kitchen and child care. The business was still worth it, Hill said, because she bakes cakes that are peanut-free and sometimes gluten-, dairy- or soy-free to address allergies.

"I've had people call to say, 'My child has never had a cake and now he can have one,' " Hill said. "If I lose money from time to time, so be it, because I know I'm changing lives."

Bill Marler, a food-safety lawyer in Seattle who represented children sickened in the E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box almost 20 years ago, said Wyoming is considering allowing people to sell raw milk and cheese products from home.

"I guess in the scheme of things, I don't see Washington's as that problematic," Marler said. "My preference would be that you leave things the way they are, but I don't think the food-safety world will crash down if the rules go through."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

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