Those tamales sold on street corners and in front of grocery stores prepared in Arizona home kitchens may soon become legal.
Ditto menudo, posole, pupusas and anything else now readily available.
With only 11 dissenting votes, the state House approved legislation Thursday to expand state laws that allow the sale of “cottage foods” to the general public. With the Senate already having given its blessing, HB 2509 now goes to Gov. Katie Hobbs.
Arizona law generally gives the state Department of Health Services oversight of foods and drinks sold at the retail level. That includes minimum standards for kitchens and equipment as well as regulations for producing, processing, labeling, storing, handling, serving and transporting the products.
Lawmakers approved an exemption in 2010 for home kitchens if these products are not potentially hazardous and do not require time or temperature controls. That has allowed for the sale of baked items.
What strictly speaking remains illegal is the sale of home-prepared items that have to be cooked and kept warm.
That would change if Hobbs signs the measure. And that, said Rep. Travis Grantham, is long overdue.
The Gilbert Republican said his legislation simply recognizes the facts on the ground: These items are widely offered for sale. What would change is that the cooks who prepare them and the family members that sell them would no longer be subject to fines.
Not everyone thinks it is a good idea.
During debate Thursday, Rep. Patty Contreras, R-Phoenix, told colleagues of her experience as a food service manager for more than 15 years, including at one point managing five commercial kitchens preparing more than 2,000 meals a day for home-bound seniors and others. She rattled off a litany of the kinds of diseases that people can get if food is not cooked at the proper temperature for the necessary period of time.
For example, she said Campylobacter causes an estimated 1.5 million illnesses in the United States every year. Symptoms range from diarrhea and nausea to stomach cramps.
And then there’s E. coli, which can have similar effects.
Grantham, for his part, isn’t worried.
“I understand there are safety concerns with a bill like this,” he said.
“But I personally have never been made ill or had food poisoning from something I’ve bought from cottage food,” Grantham said. “I have been made ill at a restaurant, ironically.”
But the debate went far beyond questions of food safety and instead to economic development and even to issues of culture.
Rep. Consuelo Hernandez, D-Tucson, said it was hypocritical of lawmakers who, like her, represent largely Latino districts to oppose legalizing the widespread practice.
And her sister, Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, questioned how many people who won’t support the legislation actually have purchased tamales or similar items themselves from street vendors.
“I just find it a little hypocritical of us to sit here and pretend that we’ve never once tried them, we’ve never supported someone that’s selling them from their home,” she said.
“I find it extremely troubling that we are saying that this is going to kill Arizonans because someone is making food from their home and selling it,” Alma Hernandez said. And she said a lot of those people are single mothers living in her district.
The problem, she said, is that it remains illegal and those who get reported are subject to fines.
“I find it extremely troubling that someone who is trying to make a living, again, an honest living selling tamales or selling menudo on the weekends, which, believe me, there are many of us sitting here who have constituents that are doing that just to try to make their bills,” Alma Hernandez said.
“We’re talking about those in our communities who are doing what they can to provide food on their own table,” she continued. “And I’ll tell you that Maria and the other women that live in my district who sell tamales that I buy from every month are not going to do something that’s going to prohibit them from being able to sell again because their reputation’s on the line.”
But Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, said the issue goes beyond safety. She cited a constituent who runs an Indian restaurant near her house.
“He had been doing a pretty good business,” she said.
“But since the pandemic he has really been undercut by people who have been preparing food at home, advertising it on the internet, on social media or on WhatsApp and have been serving the food in their backyards and also just accepting cash payments,” Schwiebert said. “So he asked, ‘Why would I as a restaurant owner follow the rules when other people don’t have to follow those rules?’ ”
She said if the state is going to allow home kitchens there should be some cap on the amount of business they can do.
Grantham, however, said the opposition from restaurants is “they just don’t want the competition.”
Others had their own reasons for supporting the legislation.
Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande, spoke of an Eloy constituent, “a single mother whose husband left her with children,” who makes a living selling all kinds of breads and baked items made at home.
“She is fighting to be a U.S. citizen the legal way,” Martinez said, pursuing “the American dream. “This bill will allow Anna Brown from Eloy to be able to do so much more.”
And then there were those for whom the issue was more a question of personal gastronomy.
“I like tamales and I vote aye,” said Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma.
Grantham said even if Hobbs signs the measure there still would be limits.
“For example, a cottage food producer cannot run a restaurant out of their home,” he said.
Grantham said that existing prohibitions about having alcohol or cannabis in home-prepared goods are being strengthened. He also said if the food is being sold online it must be specifically disclosed that the items were prepared in a home kitchen.
And Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, said there’s another reason to support the measure: the environment.
“If you want to talk about a bill that encourages eating local and addresses the climate change that is supposedly caused by the transportation of food across long distances then you should be in support of the bill,” he said.