How to Navigate Small Food Business Regulations

small food business regulations

Keeping up with small food business regulations, as well as understanding changes in state or federal codes, is one of the primary challenges for a food entrepreneur. And it’s worth the trouble: a recall or unexpected production halt can hit a small business so hard that it’s tough to come back again. Avoid one of these costly experiences by understanding who regulates your business, and maintaining a proactive dialogue with them.

One of the best pieces of advice we’ve heard? “[Regulatory agencies] don’t want to see anyone fail, they want to help you succeed.” says Ian Pasquarelli, food business consultant. “If you don’t ask them questions, if you don’t go to them first honestly, they can’t help you succeed.”

Now, let’s get to know your regulatory bodies.

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Your State:

Your food business is regulated, 99% of the time, by one of two bodies: your local Department of Agriculture or your local Department of Health. (Here’s a directory!) This is how the two agencies tend to be diversified:

(Quick obligatory note: we’re not regulators or lawyers! Always check with local departments to confirm these conditions.)

Department of Agriculture:

  • Consumer packaged goods (CPG)
  • Fresh produce
  • Many goods sold wholesale
  • Beverages such as juice or cider

Department of Health:

  • Restaurants
  • Food trucks / mobile food service operations
  • Any ready-to-eat (RTE) food operation (e.g., catering, ghost restaurant, other delivery service)

Either department will inspect and license you at your production facility, and they can serve as a resource when you have questions about what you can and can’t do. Our advice? Call them before Day 1. They’ll tell you the challenges you’ll run into with regulatory agencies, and save you time later.

Home-based business? These types of businesses are called Cottage Food Producers, and their regulations tend to differ. Check out this helpful white paper for an introduction to the laws that govern those who produce their product at home.

Federal:

Starting to sell across state lines? It’s likely time for the FDA or USDA to get involved. The FDA regulates “all foods and food ingredients introduced into or offered for sale in interstate commerce.” If any of those products include a certain percentage of meat, poultry, or eggs, the USDA takes over oversight responsibilities. The two agencies generally don’t work together (though with the advent of cell-cultured meats a new precedent was set for dual oversight).

Not sure where to start? This FDA page gives an overview of how, and when, to register with them. And our friends at Food Safety Mastery have plenty of helpful breakdowns of the food code and other small food business regulations.

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