By Cheryl Wixson
We operate a diversified organic farm with a surplus of goat milk, honey, fruits and vegetables that we would like to process and sell at farmers’ markets and our farm stand. What type of license is required?
Everyone who sells a food product in Maine needs a state food license, issued by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations (www.maine.gov/dacf/qar/index.shtml).
The type of license required depends on the product you wish to sell. For example, shelf-stable, non-perishable foods such as jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, candies and most baked goods can be produced in the home kitchen with a home food processing license.
Potentially hazardous foods, or perishable products that need to be refrigerated or frozen to reduce microbial growth, must be produced in a commercial processing facility (separate from the home kitchen) and require a commercial food processor license. Dairy items such as cheese must be produced in a commercial facility and have additional requirements (www.maine.gov/dacf/qar/permits_and_licenses/application_forms.shtml).
Selling at farmers’ markets or craft fairs requires a mobile vending license.
What are the basic requirements for my kitchen or facility?
The State of Maine Food Code (www.maine.gov/dacf/qar/laws_and_rules/food_laws_rules.shtml) is based upon FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices. These regulations help the processor produce foods under sanitary conditions. Processors must use potable water (either municipal or tested annually), and their septic systems must meet all state and local codes. The water test must show the level of coliforms, nitrates and nitrites. Certified laboratories in Maine that offer water testing are listed at www.informe.org/hetl/.
Home food processors need a two-bay sink, or a one-bay sink and a dishwasher that has a sanitizing cycle. Commercial kitchens need a two-bay sink (three-bay is recommended) and a separate hand-wash sink. Counters and floors should be sealed and washable. Good sanitation for pest control is required, doors and windows should have screens, and pets are not allowed in the facility during processing.
Does my food product need to be tested before selling it?
The University of Maine Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition reviews food processing and tests products. Dr. Alfred Bushway (professor emeritus), Dr. Beth Calder, Dr. Jason Bolton and Kathy Davis-Dentici determine whether your food product falls under Maine Food Processing Authority’s proper guidelines for food safety and/or Standard of Identity.
Most fruit-based jams and jellies, baked goods, and candies and confections do not need to be tested but must meet certain standards of identity (www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?CFRPart=150&showFR=1&subpartNode=21:126.96.36.199.29.2).
Because low-acid and acidified canned foods can present life-threatening hazards, they must be tested. The FDA defines acidified foods as low-acid foods such as cucumbers and green beans to which acid (vinegar or lemon juice) is added to reduce the equilibrium pH below 4.6, which prevents growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that can produce botulism. For extra precaution, FDA recommends that these products be at pH 4.2 or lower. A pH meter is a worthwhile investment. You need to test each batch of product you make 16 to 24 hours after producing it, and keep records.
How can I can my product? Is pressure canning allowed?
Acidified foods may either be canned and sealed in a boiling water bath or by a process known as hot fill. The temperature of the product filling the jar must be a minimum of 180 F (190 F is recommended for safety), then the jar is capped and inverted for 5 minutes. Be sure to maintain proper fill levels and check the seal.
Although pressure canning is safe for home food processing, the only pressure-canned food that is legal to sell in Maine must be canned in a retort facility (a facility with an industrial-scale canner). Home canned foods cannot be served in schools.
The Bioterrorism Act requires that you register your facility with the FDA (www.access.fda.gov/).
Do I need to provide nutritional information on my label? What is required?
The following information is required on all labels: the name of the food product; the net weight (measured in both grams and ounces or by count); the ingredients, listed in descending order by weight of each ingredient; and the name and address of the processor, packer or distributor. If your food product contains allergens, you must identify them on the label: dairy, eggs, fish, wheat, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts and soybeans. If you produce a product in a facility that processes these ingredients, noting that on the label is a good precaution.
Nutritional information is not required if you sell directly to the consumer and gross less than $50,000, or to a retailer with less than $500,000 annual gross sales.
For products going to health food stores and supermarkets, bar codes are often necessary. Contact www.gs1.org/.
This seems like a lot of science. Where can I get help?
The University of Maine offers Better Process School, an FDA requirement for products going across state lines. Dr. Beth Calder, 207-581-2791, is an excellent resource. The Cooperative Extension Service offers workshops and classes on food safety for meat, cheese and poultry.
When developing recipes, I recommend a quality scale that measures in grams. Your recipe or production process should have exact temperatures, weights and process times. You must keep accurate records. In the event of a food-borne illness from or contamination in your product, you should have a Food Recall Plan. See http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Spring2012/FoodSafety/tabid/2139/Default.aspx.
I want to market my product as organic. What do I need to do?
The National Organic Program (NOP) requires that any processed product (frozen, chilled, dehydrated, dried, pickled, canned, preserved, cooked, baked, pressed, extracted, distilled, etc.) labeled “Organic” or “Made with Organic Ingredients” must be certified organic. To maintain and demonstrate the organic integrity of your product, you must keep detailed records of all ingredients, along with lot or batch numbers. If you farm organically but do not certify the products on your farm, your processed products cannot be labeled as organic. For guidance and more information, contact MOFGA certification services (www.mofgacertification.org/?page_id=196).
What other resources are available?
MOFGA hosts two workshops a year on Kitchen Licensing – on April 2 and in December (date TBA) 2014. Register at www.mofga.org/Programs/Events/KitchenLicensingWorkshop/tabid/1588/Default.aspx.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin “Recipe to Market: How to Start a Specialty Food Business in Maine” is available at http://umaine.edu/publications/3101e/.
The Maine Food Producers Alliance (www.mainefoodproducers.com) offers workshops throughout the year and is an excellent networking organization.
The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Division of Quality Assurance (www.maine.gov/dacf/qar/index.shtml) can answer licensing questions.
Maine has several co-packers, including Pemberton’s Foods in Gray, 800-255-8401, and Lucas Foods in Biddeford, 207-284-7052.
Is starting a food business right for you?
Food processing is a labor- and capital-intensive business, but it can be profitable. It is a rapidly growing segment of the local food movement. Before you start, be sure to research your products and potential markets. Be safe and good luck!
About the author: Cheryl Wixson, MOFGA’s organic marketing consultant, operates a specialty food company (cherylwixsonskitchen.com) at Coastal Farms and Foods in Belfast. Contact her at Cheryl@mofga.org or 207-338-0949.