Many people are trying to make a little extra money using social media these days. It makes sense – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and the like connect people in a way that has never been possible before. People advertise delicious, home-cooked meals for sale and local people can drop in and buy a plate. However, this type of activity is highly illegal in Hillsborough County, the state of Florida, and in most other US jurisdictions as well. Enforcement agencies have learned to love using social media to catch violators in the act.

Many states have a cottage food law. For example, Florida’s version allows home bakers to make cakes, breads, and other low water activity foods for sale within state lines as long as the food is properly labeled and they sell less than $50,000 per year. However, this type of law only applies to low-risk foods. Most of the foods people are cooking in their home kitchens are potentially hazardous and would support pathogen growth and/or toxin formation.

In Tampa, the state is not the only governing body. Hillsborough County also performs inspections of food service establishments and will issue citations to those not in compliance with state law as well as county-level fines. Once the offending party registers with the state, then they will also be visited by a state inspector from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation Division of Hotels and Restaurants to ensure the kitchen is in compliance with all applicable food safety regulations. The FDA Food Code has been adopted in Florida and all employees are required to have accredited training in food safety every 3-5 years.

Many people feel this is unfair because the people cooking at home are just trying to make an honest living or a few extra bucks on the side to make ends meet. If a foodborne illness outbreak was traced back to a home kitchen, though, the responsible agencies worry about potential liability for not providing adequate protection to the citizens of their state. Some states take it even further than Florida does with their fines; one mom named Mariza Ruelas, who lives in California, is facing possible jail time for her home cooking business. “Ruelas said yes when a member of the [Facebook] group asked to buy her signature ceviche dish last December, not knowing it was an undercover investigator from San Joaquin County who, according to court documents, was on a sting because most members didn’t have permits to sell food.”

If you or someone you know wants to start up a business selling food for humans or animals, please do your research and ensure you operate within the law. Potential civil and criminal penalties exist at the local, state, and federal level (if you sell over state lines or ship your food from an internet advertisement). Investigators can use social media to find offenders without ever leaving their desks, and they can archive your advertisement in the blink of an eye using an archival website such as the Wayback Machine. Educate yourself to avoid fines which will end up putting you in a worse place financially than you were when you started!