Home-based food sales stirring up trouble with Manitoba's health inspectors
Manitoba health ordered 3 home-based restaurants to close after increase in social media meal sales
There's a growing trend in Manitoba's food service industry and it's not coming out of restaurant kitchens — which is why the province is now trying to put a lid on it.
Home-based cooks are offering up tasty meals out of their own kitchens — food that's hot, fresh and sometimes even delivered.
"The problem is they don't have a permit for these places," said Manitoba's chief health inspector, Mike LeBlanc.
"You have to have a permit from the government in order to operate a commercial establishment."
Permits for restaurants are issued by the Manitoba Health Protection Unit and intended to ensure that a food establishment is abiding by health and safety regulations and is regularly inspected.
LeBlanc's department is seeing a wide range of food for sale, he said — "everything from frozen perogies, or cabbage rolls or spring rolls, to fully catered hot meals."
There's a range of service, too.
"Some of them you go to a house to pick it up and some they'll actually have a delivery service.… It's basically a home-based restaurant or catering service."
In the past few months, the province has shut down three such home-based restaurants. One was convicted and fined more than $1,300 for operating a food establishment without a permit and failing to register with the province. The two others are still before the courts.
Two of the homes ordered to close are on the same street in the Inkster Gardens area of Winnipeg. Manitoba Health is now posting the names and addresses of home-based kitchens that get closure orders or convictions, just as the department has previously done for restaurants and other licensed establishments.
LeBlanc said for years, people could be found selling home-cooked baking or frozen goods from their home, but it was mostly to family and friends.
"We have for quite a long time had people making cakes or cookies and we would keep an eye on that, and if we got a complaint about it we would look into it," he said. But with the advent of social media, he says home-based businesses are becoming much more prominent.
Scrolling through social media buy-and-sell pages, it's not hard to find dozens of ads for homemade service meals. Some of the ads even offer a menu and a delivery service charge.
CBC contacted several of the vendors and found that in most cases, the food isn't coming from a licensed restaurant, it's coming from someone's home.
LeBlanc said it's important to note that not all ads on social media are suspect — some legitimate restaurants are using it to advertise.
And he said that while many of the foods found online, like cookies and jams, are considered low-risk, it's still not legal to sell any food that's made in an unlicensed kitchen unless the maker qualifies for an exemption.
Farmers market vendors are generally exempt from the rule but only for certain foods, and the market itself must obtain a permit and oversee its own vendors to make sure they are complying with standards.
Home food sales popping up across Canada
LeBlanc said the home-based food trend isn't limited to Winnipeg.
"Everything is moving online these days, and food sales are no different. I know from colleagues across Canada this is happening in just about every jurisdiction that we know of across Canada and in the U.S. too."
He said inspectors are now keeping an eye on social media pages to see what people are offering from their homes. They also get one or two complaints a week about these food operations and will investigate.
Many of the complaints come from neighbours, who notice an increase in traffic and parking on their residential streets, and either contact Manitoba Health directly or complain to their local politicians. Customers also sometimes complain about food that's "subpar," he said, "or that they've actually gotten sick from some food that they have purchased and eaten."
"We're getting complaints from legitimate businesses who have made significant investment in a storefront operation. They are concerned that people are undercutting them," said LeBlanc.
Some say they didn't know they were breaking rules
When CBC asked the home-based sellers through online messaging whether or not they had a permit, many of them stopped responding or immediately removed their ads.
Some sellers contacted by phone said they were shocked to hear what they are doing is illegal.
"I had no idea. I mean, I've seen [others], not only on [Facebook] Marketplace but even before Marketplace came into effect. There was all these garage sale sites, and Kijiji — it's all on there," said Kelsey, who did not want her last name used.
Kelsey said she's a stay-at-home mom and sells frozen perogies to make a little extra money around the holidays.
She said she's upfront about where they are made and doesn't think it should be a problem.
"Personally, I think it's ridiculous.… If somebody is willing to buy from you, I don't see why you can't [sell to them]," she said.
LeBlanc said many of the sellers do know the rules, and are just choosing to ignore them.
"There are rules that are published.… We're not out there trying to hit poor Mom in the pocketbook or anything, but we've got a job to do as well."
Those who follow rules want more enforcement
Sheila Bennett opened up Kitchen Sync — a licensed kitchen space which home-based cooks can rent — a couple of years ago after seeing a need for one.
Bennett said that even though it's the law to make food in a licensed kitchen, many producers don't.
One of the problems is that consumers don't ask enough questions about where the products are coming from, like whether they're coming from a licensed kitchen, she said.
"The other problem is that producers have figured out ways around it."
Bennett said many producers will come to her kitchen long enough to get their permit and then stop using the kitchen, or only use it for part of the process.
"They'd still do most of the production in their home to save money."
Bennett charges an average of $25 per hour for the fully equipped space. She said that price barely covers the costs of running the kitchen, and if she didn't also host events in the space it wouldn't exist.
Lindsay Platt uses Kitchen Sync on a weekly basis to make food for her business, Modern Plate Catering, and said the costs of renting the kitchen space make up about 10 per cent of her overhead costs.
She thinks people who skirt the rules should be stopped.
"I think it's pretty unfair and terrible of them. It's not safe or food safe at all — a lot of those people have pets and kids running around," she said.
"They need to realize that there are people out there actually doing it for a living, and that it is the business we're in and we do it properly."
Bennett says customers of home-based food sellers may be well intentioned, but they also need to be careful.
"People want to support local, people are buying with their hearts and they're keeping their money in our economy, and that's what we want to do … but on the other hand there's people that are taking advantage of that."