Rules and Regulations for Selling Food Online

Jan 26, 2017 by Ashley Hoffmann, Ecwid Team
Posted Jan 26, 2017 by Ashley Hoffmann, Ecwid Team

The rules and regulations for selling food online can be a little tricky, as they vary so much based on where your kitchen is located.

However, there are some basics that you should prepare for before you start selling your food products. The laws and certifications required may seem daunting and time-consuming in the beginning, but they are all geared at keeping your customers safe and healthy—and minimizing your risk of accidentally making buyers sick.

Know that getting up to speed and in compliance is a step in the right direction toward building a trustworthy brand that gets recommended again and again.

Let’s dive into the requirements for your online food business, from laws to labeling requirements and beyond.

Know the General Laws Around Selling Food

In the US, retailers who sell food products made in their homes are required to adhere to Cottage Food Regulations. These laws apply to baked goods, jams and jellies, dry mixes, popcorn, and nuts, and allow you to sell at farmer’s markets and other local events alongside your online operation.

While the details of these laws vary slightly from state to state (and change frequently), there are a few basic requirements for compliance across the board, including:

  • An annual kitchen inspection from the health department
  • Zoning clearance and appropriate permits from local government
  • A state business license
  • pet-free kitchen environment
  • Proper storage of cold and dry ingredients

If you have questions, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your state branch of the Department of Agriculture as well as your local health department for more in-depth details about what laws you’ll need to be in compliance with before you start selling food online. For European Union-based sellers, you will have a unique set of laws to get familiar with.

Get the Right Certification and Permits

Once your workspace is law-compliant, you’ll want to make sure you have the right certifications and permits to sell food online. Again, requirements vary by state, and the online marketplace is a bit of a gray area when it comes to this aspect of your business. But to err on the side of safety, it’s a good idea to at least get the following permits, training, and certifications.

  1. Get your home business state-licensed. Many states within the US require that home businesses are registered at the state level before any sales are made.
  2. Get a permit from your county. Check with local government departments to ensure that your home kitchen meets zoning and food safety requirements. If your home kitchen isn’t a viable option, you may need to consider renting an external or commercial kitchen space.
  3. Become a certified food handler. This certification includes training that can be done in person or through online classes. During the course, you’ll learn about food safety, the best practices for preparing and storing food, cooking temperatures, handwashing, foodborne illness, and much more.

Image source: eFoodHandlers

Once your kitchen space is approved for business and you’ve obtained the training you need, you can start cooking and packing up those delicious products you’ll be selling online.

Make Sure Labels Meet Requirements

When it comes time to package up your food products, you’ll want to be sure to create detailed labels that let buyers know exactly what ingredients are included. Share this information in your online product descriptions, too. This makes it easier for customers with dietary restrictions and reduces the risk of allergic reactions.

John Taylor of Taylor Family Farm, a long-time online food retailer, offers a tip for anyone getting started: “Take good pictures and be as descriptive as possible, this avoids folks having to contact you to ask questions before ordering.”

According to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, all food products should include labels with complete disclosure of ingredients, net quantity, and weight of total ingredients, as well as the name and location of the maker of the packaged goods. When listing ingredients, start with the largest quantity and work your way down to the smallest. Specific allergens should be highlighted, such as peanuts, wheat, and soy, for example.

Labels are also a good place to point out high-quality ingredients with a backstory. If your food products have ingredients you’re proud of–like locally-sourced fruits or herbs from your home garden–showcase them on your product label as well.

Tax or No Tax?

The rules on collecting sales tax are blurry when it comes to online food businesses, but generally, legislation says that if you have a physical presence in the state (i.e. a kitchen, storefront, etc.), you do need to collect sales tax on sales made within your state of business, but not for sales made to out-of-state buyers. If you don’t have a physical presence in the state and your operation is strictly online-only, you do not need to collect sales tax.

To read more on this topic, check out:

Ship Accordingly

Last, but not least, you’ll want to make sure you’re shipping your food products safely and meeting the requirements of your desired shipping provider. If your products do not require refrigeration, often times you’ll simply be required to mark your packages as “perishable” and/or “fragile”.

However, if the quality of your food products will suffer when exposed to extreme cold or heat (ask yourself: Will this easily melt?), you may need to find a shipping supplier that offers climate controlled shipments or include refrigerants in your packaging. Always insulate your packages to reduce the transfer of heat or cold through container walls.

Finally, keep in mind that fresh fruits and vegetables are nonmailable unless presented in a dry condition.

Know the Rules & Regulations to Selling Food Online

With the right information and preparation, you can get your food products off the ground in no time at all–and can rest assured that you’re making strides toward a healthy cooking environment, too.

Make sure you keep your permits and certifications up-to-date as your business progresses, and check back to see what changes have been made with laws and requirements. As a proactive business owner, you’ll earn the trust and respect of your customers and can build a reputable food business.

About The Author
Ashley leads Ecwid’s customer success initiatives and is passionate about creating happy customers and maximizing value. When she isn’t chatting with customers you’ll likely find her playing outdoors on a surf or snowboard.

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