Earlier this year, the story of a 12-year-old Metro East girl whose home baking business was shut down by public health officials garnered national attention and criticism.

Now the situation is getting some common-sense attention at the Illinois Capitol, where lawmakers are working to improve a state law that inadvertently sets burdensome and prohibitively expensive public health standards for ordinary people who bake at home and sell their goods to others.

Trouble for Chloe Stirling of Troy, a talented young cupcake baker and entrepreneur, began to unfold in January when the Madison County Health Department shut down her home-based business called Hey Cupcake! Public health officials said she didn’t work out of a certified kitchen and was selling baked goods to the public in violation of the health code.

Stirling, 12, already had been making cakes and cupcakes out of her family kitchen for two years, earning about $200 a month. Most of her sales were to friends, relatives and some word-of-mouth customers. By most people’s standards, her business was a success.

But after she was featured in a newspaper story that highlighted her entrepreneurial skills and baking prowess, the health department came knocking, telling Chloe and her mother that the home-kitchen operation violated health guidelines and that they would have to buy a bakery or build a separate kitchen in their home.

The family’s willingness to get necessary licenses, permits and food-handling training wasn’t enough in the eyes of the law. And the notion of buying or building a kitchen space was out of the question — especially so for a girl whose grandmother bought her a stand mixer and whose parents gave her a little refrigerator in which to store baking ingredients.

The situation outraged free-market advocates who object to such bureaucracy and government intrusion. Yet, public health laws exist for good reason — to protect people from becoming ill or dying from the things they eat and drink. The laws require proper food storage, handling and preparation, among other things.

In Stirling’s case, the Madison County Health Department applied to her operation a law that addresses all food-selling businesses. Clearly, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Now the Illinois legislature is advancing a modification to the law that would apply some valid regulations to home kitchen operations. The changes would give hobby bakers some protection from being shut down or having to build expensive, professional-grade kitchens simply so they can put their skills to use and make a little money on the side.

The law, House Bill 5354, cleared the Senate Public Health Committee on May 13, but lawmakers said there could be additional changes to ensure it accomplishes what is intended without creating unintended restrictions and consequences.

It will move to the full Senate for consideration.

As it stands now, the bill applies to home bakers whose monthly sales are no more than $1,000. It would require hobby bakers and other groups that make and sell baked goods to the public to notify buyers in writing that products were made

in a home kitchen. They also would have to label all products with a list of ingredients, allergens and a warning that they were baked in a home that was not inspected by a health department.

In addition, home kitchen operators would be required to obtain a food service sanitation management certificate from the local health department, and they would have to register with the health department and pay a fee.

Many people know someone who happily bakes cakes or other desserts for friends for a nominal price. The bakers do it because they get to practice something they enjoy and sell their creations to appreciative customers. Customers, many of whom are strapped for time or lack baking skills, love it because they can get a custom-made, home-baked cake or dessert for celebrations without the hassle of doing it themselves and without the processed ingredients that often can be found in store-bought desserts.

Legislators are correct to try to accommodate a special — but not uncommon — situation that can be found throughout Illinois. The law as it stands stifles entrepreneurship and fails to recognize that home bakers are a common fixture when it comes to modern family life.

—GateHouse News Service