New food laws: Home kitchens yes, plastic straws no

New state bills aimed at helping small food producers, curbing plastics.|

If you know Sonoma well, you’re aware of the underground tamale network. What seems to be mostly grandmothers have long been cooking up the traditional Latin American treat to sell to neighbors and friends of friends for $2 to $5 a piece. Thanks to Assembly Bill 626, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 18, those businesses can now be legitimized and turned into a proper cottage industry.

For decades, only food made in commercially certified kitchens could be sold for public consumption. Because such kitchens are costly to build and maintain, that left many home chefs without a way to sell their wares. The law was loosened up a bit in 2012, when the legislature allowed for preserves, pickles and other canned goods made at home to be sold for public consumption. AB 626 takes those allowances even farther.

To protect the public from food-borne illness, those who obtain a permit to sell food under the new law must receive the same certification as restaurant managers, proving they know how to safely store and prepare perishable items. They must also agree to a kitchen inspection to ensure everything is made in a clean environment. County permits can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,200, depending on what is being sold and at what volume.

Packaging must also follow certain set standards, and include nutritional information.

The bill is aimed at supporting small producers, those who make more than $50,000 a year will be required to move into a commercial kitchen. Home chefs also must sell directly to customers, and cannot mail products or rely on a delivery service.

While the bill goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, it does not mean Sonoma producers can start selling in the New Year. The Sonoma County Department of Health Services must choose whether to opt in, since it will be charged with enforcing the safety standards. Sonoma County Environmental Health & Safety, which oversees food permits, has not yet decided whether to opt in. The director, Barbie Robinson, is spending this week at a conference to learn more about the new law.

Straws by request only

As of Jan. 1, diners will have to ask for a straw if they want to sip a beverage through a piece of plastic. On Sept. 20, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1884, which forbids sit-down restaurants from providing plastic drinking straws to customers unless they specifically ask for one.

“Plastics, in all forms - straws, bottles, packaging, bags, etc. - are choking our planet,” Brown penned in his signing message on the new law. “It’s a very small step to make customers who want a plastic straw ask for it.”

Fast-food restaurants will be exempt from the new legislation. Dine-in restaurants that are caught violating the law will receive two written warnings before a $25-a-day fine is imposed until the business stops serving up straws.

Advocates for those with disabilities advocated against a total ban on plastic straws, as certain people have trouble drinking without the aid of a straw.

Here in Sonoma, straw alternatives have been growing in popularity. Many restaurants have replaced plastic with biodegradable and compostable straws, while others get creative with straws made from pasta or paper.

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