A Yellowknife baker is raising concerns over the amount of red tape surrounding commercial low-risk food operations in the city.
Tania Oosting was operating her home-based business, Crazy Cookie Lady, making custom decorated sugar cookies
on a by-order basis but after she was featured in Yellowknifer, city hall notified her that she was violating food safety regulations.
“The City of Yellowknife emailed me the day the article ran and told me I needed to register my name, get a business licence and a health inspection with Environmental Health,” said Oosting.
She said she had no problem registering and obtaining a business licence but once she looked into getting a health inspection she started to have problems. She said the territorial government insists that she must use a commercial kitchen, which in Yellowknife could cost close to $100 per rental.
“I'm told all food sold to the public must be made in a commercial kitchen. Nothing can be made in a home kitchen. You have to either build a commercial kitchen or rent one,” said Oosting. “Three people with Environmental Health told me this.”
Selling commercial food to the public falls under the NWT Food Establishment Safety Regulations of the Public Health Act, which states: “If food is handled for a commercial purpose in a private residence, these regulations apply in respect of the premises in the residence where food is handled for that purpose.”
Allan Torng, environmental health adviser with the Department of Health and Social Services, explained that contrary to what Oosting says she was told by several environmental health officers, residents do not need to rent a commercial kitchen. He said as long as residents pass a health inspection by an environmental health officer, they would in fact be allowed to sell food from a residential kitchen.
The regulations also require that the kitchen must be separated “from any living quarters and from other areas in the premises where activities are carried out that are incompatible with the safe and sanitary handling of food.”
“It basically does stipulate that a person can set up a commercial food handling operation within a private residence. They can, but in doing so they have to go through the application process as already covered,” said Torng.
The food safety inspection could assess everything from the water supply, kitchen ventilation, the way food is stored and the surfaces that it is prepared on, among other things.
The department also noted that a food safety course is required before anyone can sell food to the public and that chefs and bakers should contact their municipalities to ensure they're not breaking any building codes or zoning violations.
When asked what would be required to open a business in a residential area of Yellowknife, a city staff member directed Yellowknifer to the at-home business licence application on the city's website. The form asks a number of questions about the size and scope of the proposed home-based business but nothing specifically relating to selling of food.
There are exceptions in the regulations for special events such as non-profit bake sales, traditional feasts and larger markets such as the Yellowknife Farmers Market. Some of these exemptions, such as the farmers market, still require food inspections before and during the preparation of food. However, those inspections vary based on the event. Inspections also take into account the types of food that are being prepared from low-risk foods such as cookies to high-risk foods such as fried chicken.
With so many variations and exemptions to the rules, Oosting is hoping the territory will adopt “cottage food laws” that apply to low-risk, at-home food makers that net under $25,000 in profit annually. There are currently no overarching cottage food regulations in Canada, leaving each province and
territory to determine how to regulate the sale of food.
“In the U.S., there are cottage food laws that are specifically for people like me, small businesses using home kitchens,” said Oosting. “Low-risk foods are clearly outlined.”
All but two states in the US have adopted cottage food laws, however they vary from state to state. There are now a number of online petitions and organized groups calling for provinces across the country to adopt Cottage Food laws.