By Peggy Kirk Hall, director of agricultural law, Ohio State University Agricultural and Resource Law Program
There’s much disagreement over what we know about COVID-19, but one thing we can agree upon is that it has left an impact on the food supply chain. For some food producers, that impact is creating opportunity. Many growers see the potential of filling the gaps created by closed processing facilities, thin grocery shelves, and unwillingness to shop inside stores. If you’re one of those growers who sees an opportunity to sell food, we have a few thoughts on legal issues to consider before moving into the direct food sales arena. Doing so will reduce your risks and the potential of legal liability.
Follow COVID-19-related guidelines
Perhaps this goes without saying, but businesses should take COVID-19 guidelines seriously. Doing so will hopefully reduce the potential of a COVID-19 transmission in the operation while also minimizing the risk of an enforcement action and potential legal liability for failing to protect employees and customers. Follow the Ohio Department of Health Responsible RestartOhio Guidelines that are now in effect. Engaging directly with customers places a grower in the “Consumer, Retail and Services” sector guidelines. Mandatory requirements include protecting the health and safety of employees, customers and guests by establishing six-foot distances or barriers, wearing face masks, handwashing and sanitizing, checking for symptoms daily, posting signs, deep cleaning, and dealing with suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19. The FDA has also issued “Best Practices for Retail Food Stores, Restaurants and Food Pick-Up and Delivery Services.” Develop protocols based upon the guidelines, carefully train employees on protocols, and document your compliance.
Determine what food safety regulations apply to you
For food safety purposes, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and local county health department require licensing or inspection of certain types of food sale activities. The regulations are a bit messy, and it’s challenging to know when an operator is affected by these regulatory requirements. We’ve explained licensing laws pertaining to sales directly at the farm in this law bulletin, “Selling Foods at the Farm: When Do You Need a License?” There are more stringent requirements for those who sell meat, process food, or sell higher risk foods or several different types of foods. We’ve provided a few simple guidelines in the chart at the end of this post, but please refer to the above law bulletin for further details. Additionally, produce growers need to comply with Good Agricultural Practice (GAPs) and Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules.
If you’re within a municipality, you may have zoning regulations that apply to your production and sales activities. Check your local zoning regulation to ensure that those activities are “permitted uses” within your designated zoning district. If not, you may need to seek a “conditional use” permit. Also be aware that some municipal zoning regulations regulate “home businesses,” and a home bakery or cottage food operation that has customers coming to the home to purchase the goods might fall into that category.
If you’re outside a municipality, Ohio’s agricultural exemption from county and township zoning applies to your production and sales activities. Local zoning can’t prohibit your activities regardless of your zoning district, with limited exceptions if you’re in a “platted subdivision” situation (on a lot under 5 acres in a platted area of at least 15 other contiguous lots). Note, however, that county and township zoning can regulate a “farm market” that receives more than 50% of its gross income from goods that weren’t raised on the owner’s farm. You might need to comply with a few zoning regulations that pertain to the size and setback lines for your structure, the parking area, and ingress and egress points for customers.
You may have to collect sales taxes on some items
Most takeaway food items to be consumed off-site, such as meat and produce, aren’t subject to Ohio’s sales tax. But if you sell items that are not exempt from sales tax, you’ll need to collect sales taxes on the items. If you’re planning to sell ready-to-eat items on site, beverages, flowers, or container plants, you must charge and collect sales taxes and obtain a vendor’s license in order to submit the taxes to the state.
You’ll likely be presented with a contract or agreement in many situations, such as a farmers’ market contract or an agreement for selling on an online sales platform. Or you may need to generate your own contract for selling whole animals or establishing a “community supported agriculture” operation. In either instance, read your contracts carefully. Be sure to include and review important terms such as price, quality delivery dates, payment processes, late fees, data use, and other provisions related to your type of sale. Don’t hesitate to involve an agricultural attorney to be sure that you’ve minimized your legal risk.
Talk to your insurance provider
Direct food sales might not be adequately covered by your insurance policy. You’ll need to know whether you have sufficient premises liability coverage if a customer is harmed on your farm, coverage for transporting foods or for selling at a farmers’ market (typically required by the market) and product liability coverage in case someone claims illness or other injury from consuming your food. You may need to increase coverage or purchase additional riders to the policy, depending on your risk level. Reviewing your policy with your provider and aligning coverage with your food sales activities is imperative to reducing your liability risk.
Do you need a separate business entity?
Consider whether your food sales activities put other assets at risk, and whether your insurance is sufficient to address that risk. If not, you should consider forming a separate business entity for your direct marketing business. Forming a Limited Liability Company for your direct food sales activities can help shield your other assets from the liability of the food sales. Talk with an agricultural attorney to assess your needs and determine what type of entity is best for your situation.
Keep great records
This one applies to everything above. Maintain records of what you do in regards to COVID-19 precautions, employee training, food safety compliance, and financial records of your expenditures and sales. If a liability incident arises, document it carefully. Keep the records for the required amount of time, which is typically three years for receipts for purchases and sales, ten years for insurance and employee records, and permanently for other records.
Don’t stop here
This list is a starting point for legal considerations for direct food sales, but it shouldn’t be the end. There may be other legal issues that affect your particularly situation. To learn more and fully consider all risks of direct marketing, talk with others who’ve directly sold food, visit with your accountant, lawyer and insurance provider, and learn the best practices for growing and marketing your food products.
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