Wisconsin Farmers Fight Tough Bakery Regulations

Published February 23, 2016

Three Wisconsin farmers are fighting the state government over an obscure safety regulation requiring baked goods made for sale to be cooked in a government-approved “food processing plant” or other commercial-grade kitchen, subject to annual government inspections and licensing fees.

Represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit public-interest law firm, the farmers filed a lawsuit in the Lafayette County Circuit Court, in January, asking the court to overturn the state law. Currently, violations of the “cookie ban” are punishable by six months of jail or fines of up to $1,000.

‘Politics and Protectionism’

“Wisconsin’s home-baked-goods ban has nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with politics and protectionism,” said Erin Smith, the IJ attorney representing the bakers.

Smith says the Wisconsin Bakers Association and other commercial food producers are lobbying to keep the ban in place, in order to protect themselves from competition.

“Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who owns his own commercial food business, prevented a ‘cookie bill’ from getting a vote in the Assembly last session, despite bipartisan support in both houses and its passage in the Senate,” Smith said.

“If these goods have not been a problem in the 48 states in which they are already being sold, there is no reason to think they would be a problem in Wisconsin,” she said. “Wisconsin already allows the sale of several other homemade goods without a commercial-grade kitchen, or commercial license, such as raw apple cider, popcorn, syrups, jams, jellies, and pickles. Home-baked goods are just as safe as, or safer than, these other goods.”

Protecting ‘Someone’s Bottom Line’

Chris Rochester, communications director for the MacIver Institute for Public Policy, says laws like the baked-goods ban benefit big businesses at the expense of everyone else.

“By requiring even the smallest of hobby bakers to use a commercial kitchen, which can cost more than $50,000, the state of Wisconsin instantly shuts them down, protecting established businesses,” Rochester said. “The role of government isn’t to protect someone’s bottom line.”

Conflicting Standards

Rochester says he doesn’t know why this law was passed in the first place.

“There’s nothing particularly sacrosanct about a commercial kitchen,” he said. “In fact, you could make the case that small-time bakers who operate out of their homes would take more time and be more cautious than a commercial operation, with its potential to be busy and chaotic.”

Rochester says lawmakers should protect citizens, not cronyism.

“Government should protect the rights of average Wisconsinites, not protect the market share of established businesses who have leveraged their size and convinced government to put barriers in the way of potential competition,” Rochester said. “Unfortunately, it seems that in Wisconsin, you need to lawyer up just to do something as benign as having a bake sale.”