Los Angeles Business Journal

‘Safe’ Food Bill Half-Baked?

OPED: Assembly measure could allow proliferation of unsafe and unsanitary home businesses. By ALEXANDER AUERBACH Monday, March 19, 2012

As Howard Fine reported in his Feb. 27 article “Not Loafing It,” Assemblyman Mike Gatto wants to make it legal for entrepreneurs to sell “safe” food items made in their homes rather than having to produce them in commercial kitchens.

The best illustration of why this is a well-intentioned but bad idea is the photo that accompanies the article. It shows the backyard oven in which would-be food entrepreneur Mark Stambler wants to bake bread for sale. The oven is wide open to birds, insects and rodents, all of which would be free to add ingredients not likely to appear on Stambler’s label.

Assemblyman Gatto calls Los Angeles County’s food safety laws Byzantine and unclear, and says they should not burden home-based businesses that make what he calls “safe” foods, such as breads, pastries and dried fruits.

After all, what could go wrong?

Not much, except serious illnesses or deaths. Oh yes, and exploitation of workers, and foods lacking safety and ingredient labeling. Plus, of course, no recourse for consumers who may be injured by these artisanal food products.

We are not living in Mayberry with Aunt Bee making cherry pies for the church raffle. These would-be food entrepreneurs want to sell to consumers who have come to expect – with justification – that the food products they are buying are sanitary, properly labeled and produced under reasonable working conditions.

The assemblyman believes baked goods and dried fruits carry little safety risk. But many pastries include cheese, jellies and sugary frostings that are ideal growing media for bacteria if the items are not properly refrigerated.

What happens if the artisanal baker decides to support other home-based enterprises, and uses cheeses and jellies made by a neighbor? A Mexican-style soft cheese that is a favorite of Hispanic do-it-yourselfers has caused outbreaks of listeriosis, resulting in premature births, brain abscesses and fetuses being stillborn.

Dried fruit, another of the assemblyman’s “safe” items, must be stored at the proper temperature and humidity or naturally occurring mold can produce aflatoxins that are poisonous and carcinogenic.

Food allergies

Let’s hope the artisanal chef doesn’t prepare that fruit on a board previously used to chop peanuts. About 3 million Americans have significant food allergies, and each year 150 die from them.

Even bread, certainly the least-risky item on the assemblyman’s list, needs to be produced, packaged and delivered with care. Aflatoxins from mold can grow on corn, wheat, nuts and other grains, and can be found in breads made with these ingredients. Typically, the only result is a mild fever. But breads can also be contaminated by bacteria, such as staph, if the baker or delivery person is infected.

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