Legal vs. illegal food sales explained

MSU Extension provides an opportunity to learn and understand the process of food sells and what the do's and don'ts are.

A pan on a stove

Can I sell my homemade food? 

This is something that is in question often. Popular homemade food items that people may try to sell include tamales and home canned tomato sauce. Some people have developed a knack for creating food items that are tasty, and in an effort to share these with others or to make a little income on the side, they make and sell these foods out of their home. However, these sales are conducted without following the proper licensing procedures and therefore are considered illegal.

As described by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) “A food establishment license is required in almost all instances where food is commercially handled or served to the general public. Even the giving of food to the general public is included. The Michigan Food Law of 2000 requires the licensing of any person or firm that processes, packs, cans, preserves, freezes, fabricates, stores, prepares, serves, sells or offers food for sale. Some businesses are exempt: for those selling low-risk items, such as prepackaged foods, exemptions may apply.”

It's So Good, What’s the Risk?

To educate and create uniform policies that can minimize the risk of unsafe food handling, and ultimately foodborne illness, there is a process that one needs to follow to provide food to the public.  Without proper licensing, there is a greater chance that food would be time/temperature abused or be subjected to unsanitary conditions.  If you are purchasing tamales from your neighborhood friend, do you know if:

  • They thawed, or stored the meat at room temperature?
  • Washed their hands or used good personal hygiene when preparing the food?
  • Cooked the tamales to the proper internal temperature?
  • Cooled the product within proper parameters and then stored at an acceptable temperature?
  • Did not have a cat crawling around the kitchen counter (that just visited the litter box)?
  • Didn’t scratch their dirty hair during preparation?
  • Washed their hands after using the bathroom, or use a towel to dry their hands that their child just used after they went to the bathroom but didn’t wash properly?

These are just some examples of the reasons why people that prepare food for the public are required to get a license. One of the public health preventative measures that the licensing process mandates is food safety training. Through proper training and education, people understand the guidelines for personal hygiene, time and temperature, and cleaning and sanitizing, among others. ServSafe® certification is an example of food safety training that meets the training requirement step towards the process of obtaining a license. MSU Extension offers ServSafe® classes throughout the state.

Education is one piece of the puzzle necessary to legally sell food. Operating out of a licensed kitchen is another step, and a home kitchen does not typically meet the requirements for a licensed kitchen. The food contact surface areas in a licensed kitchen are non-porous and less likely to harbor pathogens and set up for not just cleaning but also sanitizing. Your local health department is the agency you will need to work with to obtain the necessary licenses for selling most food items, and whom you would hear from if the proper procedures are not followed.

Next Steps:

The story doesn’t have to end here. If someone is dedicated and interested in selling their food, there may be options. Obtaining food safety certification and then the proper licensing, as well as operating out of a licensed kitchen are criteria that must be met. Aren’t ready for opening a storefront? One option includes renting space out of an incubator kitchen. This is a shared-use licensed commercial space that is certified by the health department for food production, and space is rented by the day or hour. 

Additionally, there are some select foods considered to be low risk that are actually legal to make and sell out of a home kitchen. These are called Cottage Foods. Examples are bread, popcorn, cakes, and dried herbs. There is more information on Cottage Foods on Michigan State University Extension’s website, including an option for an online class. For more information on safe food, visit

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