Volume XVII, Issue 31 # July 30 - August 5, 2009

Calvert’s Strict Lemon Laws

When life gives you lemons … call the Health Department

by Sandra Olivetti Martin

Before kids return to school, the town of North Beach invites all comers to Bayfest to celebrate the fleeting season in small-town, Bay-front America.

It was in that spirit that the pre-teen daughters of Mayor Mike Bojokles, then a town councilman, set up their lemonade stand.

“Complete with sugar on glass rims and lemon as garnish, it was homemade and delicious,” recalls Bojokles. Sophia, now nine, and Savannah, now 12, were enjoying entrepreneurial success — until the Calvert County Health Department shut them down.

“George W. Bush was president,” recalls Bojokles, “and he had bought lemonade from a couple kids at a stand. We thought it ironic that the president could buy while the health department shut my kids down.”

Once again, the law knows what’s good for you.

Every i has been dotted and t crossed in Maryland’s regulations for selling homemade comestibles. Counties follow state regulations, though they can add dots and crosses of their own. Essentially, according to Jody Menikheim of the State Department of Health, every food sold to the public must be prepared in commercial kitchens that earn licenses by following each of the regulations and are inspected lest they stray.

There are, of course, exceptions. Farmers’ markets are the big exception, and there raw fruits and vegetables, among other products, can be sold with no regulation. Bakers and jellymakers can also sell homemade products at farmers’ markets — with exceptions. The jams and jellies must be made from acidic fruits not subject to spoilage; adding acid, as in vinegar, doesn’t count, so pickle-makers are out of luck. With exceptions. On-farm producers can be licensed, as some St. Mary’s County Amish are, to prepare foods in their homes for sale in farmers’ markets and other venues.

Bakers can prepare and sell, Menikheim reports, “non-potentially hazardous baked goods that do not need refrigeration: Dry bread, cakes, cookies, fruit pies.”

Bake sales and church bazaars sell under the same allowance: Non-hazardous foods aren’t regulated.

But banana cream pie certainly is. As is any “custard, cheese cake or éclair,” warns Lisa Laschalt, Calvert County health officer and registered sanitarian. One reason is that bananas, pumpkin and sweet potatoes don’t meet the acid standard.

Except as banana-, pumpkin- or sweet-potato bread, which are allowed under what Laschalt defines as “the water-activity standard.”

So if you’ve got lemons, can you or can’t you make lemonade?

It’s complicated, Menikheim explains, “because you have 24 jurisdictions interpreting the regulations differently.”

Discretion goes into the decision on what to regulate, as does workload. Little counties, he suggests, are likely to be stricter.

His common-sense take? “If you don’t license a snoball stand, how can you regulate a person selling lemonade?”

In Anne Arundel, “for such low-risk type food as lemonade, we’d probably ask they fill out a temporary [food service] application so we know they’re out there,” says Gerry Zitnik of that county’s health department.

In Calvert County, where sno-cone stands are licensed, “If you’re chopping up lemons, it’s potentially an issue,” Laschalt says.

Her advice: “If you want to start any food service, call your health officer.”