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Bulletin #3101, Recipe to Market: How to Start a Specialty Food Business in Maine

Recipe to Market: How to Start a Specialty Food Business in Maine

Prepared by Extension Food Science Specialist and Associate Professor Beth Calder and Professor Emeritus Alfred Bushway.

For information about UMaine Extension programs and resources, visit extension.umaine.edu.
Find more of our publications and books at extensionpubs.umext.maine.edu.

Do you have a recipe that has been passed through your family for generations? Do family and friends rave about a food product that you make and encourage you to start your own food business? Are you an entrepreneur who sees a niche market for your food product? Are you a small-scale farmer who wants to develop value-added food products? Are you a caterer or restaurant owner who would like to provide one of your signature products to the retail market?

Specialty food producers—often operating home-based microenterprises—are a growing Maine industry. Yet starting a Maine home-based food business will require you to face challenges including licensing, food safety, and building business skills. In addition, some recipes and food products for sale may need to be sent to UMaine for testing. We have developed this publication to answer the questions that we are most frequently asked about starting a small food business in Maine.

1. Is starting a food business right for me?

It’s okay to decide against owning a food business after reading this publication. Starting a food business is a huge commitment of time, capital, and energy. Also, not all food products can be easily converted to retail items. Marketing research may show that your food product will not have a strong enough demand. But if you choose to proceed, having the right personality and a solid business plan will help you to be successful!

2. Where do I begin?

“How do I start, and where do I turn as I begin the process of starting my own food business?”

When cooking for family and friends, most cooks have their recipes memorized, or they use a pinch of this or that. When developing a food product for customers, you have to develop standardized recipes with exact measurements, temperatures and times noted during the process.

Recipes should be formulated on a weight basis to ensure batch-to-batch consistency. A gram scale will help you convert cups and teaspoon measurements to grams, and the scale should have an accuracy of 0.1 grams.

3. What sort of license do I need to sell my food product?

A state food license is required for everyone who sells a food product in Maine.  The two common food licenses are: a home food processor or commercial food processor license.  If you are interested in selling at the farmers markets, a mobile food vendor license will be required in addition to your other food license.  Food license applications can be obtained online from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources: Licenses and Permit Forms. If your water source is from a well, the license application requires water test results for coliforms, nitrates and nitrites. For a list of certified laboratories in Maine that offer water testing, please visit the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory website.

If you have further regulatory questions, please feel free to contact Steve Giguere, Maine Department of Agriculture, Quality Assurance and Regulations at 207.287.3841 or steve.giguere@maine.gov; additional contact information is available at Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources: Quality Assurance and Regulations.

4. Where do I get my food license? What are the food laws and rules for my product?

The Maine Department of Agriculture’s Division of Quality Assurance & Regulations issues food licenses/permits, provides food inspections before and after you start your food business, and provides information about state food regulations. Inspectors are also available to conduct pre-inspections to look at your kitchen or space and to discuss ideas before you renovate. For more information on their inspection programs, visit Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources: Inspections.

To view the Maine statutes and rules for maple syrup, beverage redemption information, and other food laws and rules, see Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources: Statutes and Rules.

Suggestions for success

We highly recommend that you obtain a copy of the State of Maine Food Code (Word) early on from the Maine Department of Agriculture (207.287.3841). This guide ultimately helps you to follow the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs), including proper sanitation, employee hygiene, and certain facility requirements. You must follow CGMPs by law. Keep in mind that these regulations are in place to make sure that you are producing foods under sanitary conditions. All of these regulations are for the health and well-being of your customers!

5. Can I produce my food product at home?

Depending on the type of product that you want to sell, you may be able to obtain a home food processor license and produce food products in your home kitchen that are non-perishable (foods that do not require refrigeration or freezing) and are considered shelf-stable foods.  Jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, sauces, marinades, most candies/confections and baked goods (unless they use cream or custard fillings or cream cheese frostings) are examples of products that can be safely processed in your home kitchen.

The Maine Department of Agriculture defines perishable products as “potentially hazardous foods.” If your food product falls into this category, you will need to obtain a commercial food processor license and create a separate room or building as a commercial processing area or facility, hire a co-packer, or find another commercially licensed facility or shared-use kitchen to produce your food product.

6. What makes a food “potentially hazardous”?

This term may seem strange, but it’s actually the label for food products that are dependent on refrigeration to reduce microbial growth. A food is categorized as potentially hazardous based mainly on its pH and its water activity value (aw). A perfect example is pesto. Fresh pesto has a pH above 4.6, has an aw of greater than 0.85, and requires refrigeration to minimize microbial growth. If you were interested in producing fresh pesto, you would have to produce it in a commercial facility, not in the home kitchen. For more information regarding this definition, please read “Chapter 1: Purpose and Definitions” in the State of Maine Food Code (Word). If you have further questions, please contact the Maine Department of Agriculture. For more information on potentially hazardous foods, please visit the Food and Drug Administration: Safe Practices for Food Processes.

7. When do I need to send in my food product for testing at UMaine?

If you are a Maine food processor, most baked goods, fruit-based jams/jellies, and candies/confections do not need to be sent to UMaine for food testing.  Acidified canned foods (pickles, salsas, marinades, dressings), dessert sauces (caramel/chocolate sauces), raw foods with minimal processing, ready to eat fruit/vegetable and meat and seafood products are examples of foods that are sent to us for testing.

The Food Process and Product Review Testing is conducted at the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Maine. Dr. Alfred Bushway (Professor Emeritus), Dr. Beth Calder, Dr. Jason Bolton, and Kathy Davis-Dentici provide a team approach to conduct food testing and write review letters to determine whether your food product falls under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proper guidelines for food safety and/or Standards of Identity. For example, 21 CFR, Part 150 outlines the standard identity for fruit butter, jams, jellies and preserves. A letter is sent back with your test results and a review that will include suggestions on how you can improve your food product if it does not meet certain guidelines. Food tests typically include:

  • water activity (aw)—to determine the amount of “free” water in baked and other foods available to support bacterial growth;
  • pH—to measure the acidity of pickled foods and salsa (most bacteria will not grow in acidic foods);
  • Brix—to determine the concentration of dissolved sugars in jams, jellies, and syrups;
  • titratable acidity—to measure the actual amount of acids in vinegars or mustards; and
  • water phase salt—to determine the percentage of salt in smoked or dried seafood and fish.

Please view UMaine’s Food Science and Human Nutrition: Process and Product Review Testing for information on how to send in a product for testing.

Questions on submitting a sample? Please contact Beth Calder at 207.581.2791 or beth.calder@maine.edu.

Note: if you make any changes to your packaging, recipe or process later, you must resubmit that information with a sample to UMaine for another review.

8. Are there special considerations for producing acidified and low-acid canned foods?

The answer is yes! Improperly processed canned foods can present life-threatening hazards.

Acidified foods

Acidified foods are defined by the FDA as low-acid foods (cucumbers, peppers, green beans, onions, etc.) to which acid (vinegar or lemon juice) and/or acid foods (tomatoes) are added to reduce the equilibrium pH below 4.6. We recommend when producing acidified foods to aim for a pH level of 4.2 or below as an extra precaution.  Equilibrium pH is the final pH in the food product after the acidic (usually vinegar) brine acidifies and balances with the other ingredients.

For more guidance on acidified and low-acid canned foods, please visit the FDA’s Acidified & Low-Acid Canned Foods (LACF) website.

If you are producing acidified foods, you will need to file your food process with the FDA if your product will be sold outside of Maine (Guidance for Industry: Submitting Forms). You must also register your facility with the FDA. Guidelines for registering your facility or scheduled process can be accessed at the FDA’s Instructions for Establishment Registration and Processing Filing for Acidified and Low-Acid Canned Foods.

Acidified foods need to be tested by UMaine to ensure that the equilibrium pH is below 4.6, which prevents the potential growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that can produce botulism. You should buy an accurate pH meter to test batches of your food product. Acidified foods need to be tested 16 to 24 hours after they were produced and the equilibrium pH of each batch documented. You will be permitted to produce acidified foods in your home kitchen if the UMaine testing results show that your product falls within safe ranges (pH of 4.2 or less for every component within 24 hours of thermal processing).

For guidance on how to purchase a pH meter, please visit the University of Nebraska website on Selecting a pH Meter. Our general pH meter recommendations are if you are producing a food product with a pH of 4.0 or higher, it is best to purchase a pH meter with an accuracy rating of 0.01 + pH units.  If producing an acidified food with a pH below 4.0, it would be best to purchase a pH meter that has an accuracy rating of 0.1 + pH units.

How to Determine pH Accurately

When producing acidified foods for commercial retail, you are required to keep accurate pH batch records of your products. It is important to test both the liquid brine and solids separately when producing acidified foods with large solid pieces. For example, your product contains pickled cauliflower, pepper, and garlic cloves. The brine can be tested directly, but the solids will need to be separated and rinsed with 1 quart of tap water in a colander. After rinsing, the cauliflower needs to be separated and homogenized in a food processor and the pH tested, the peppers homogenized separately and pH taken, etc. The pH levels of the liquid brine and solids should not differ more than 0.1 pH units to show that the acid is adequately acidifying the vegetables. These records should be written down for each batch.

Low-acid canned foods

Any food (other than alcoholic beverages) with a finished equilibrium pH greater than 4.6 and a water activity greater than 0.85, excluding tomatoes and tomato products having a finished equilibrium pH less than 4.7, is considered a low-acid food. Low-acid canned foods, such as green beans and carrots, have to be processed in a commercial facility using a steam retort system. Although pressure canning is a safe canning method for home food preservation, pressure canning low-acid canned foods in a home kitchen for sale is not allowed in Maine.

Be sure to register your facility with the FDA, which is required under the Bioterrorism Act for both domestic and foreign facilities that process and/or pack food for human or animal consumption. (Note: farms and home-based food processors are exempt, as well as food processors who fall under the jurisdiction of USDA—that is, facilities handling only meat, poultry or egg products.) You can register your facility at FDA Industry Systems, or by calling 800.216.7331 or e-mailing furls@fda.gov.

Suggestions for Success

If you are considering processing low-acid canned and/or acidified foods, the FDA requires that a supervisor from your operation obtain Better Process Control School certification to ensure that foods are properly processed and container closures are properly sealed. This certification course is offered in Orono at the University of Maine in odd years in the fall. Please call University of Maine Cooperative Extension at 207.581.2788 if you are interested in taking this course.

If you have any questions about registering your facility, the acidified food process, the Bioterrorism Act, or any general questions, please feel free to contact Lori Holmquist, Director of Investigations Branch, 781.587.7437 or lori.holmquist@fda.hhs.gov.

9. What do I need to have on my food label?

All food producers must list the following items on their food labels:

  • the statement of identity (name of food product),
  • net weight of food product (usually measured in both ounces and grams or by count),
  • ingredient listing (listed in descending order by weight of ingredients),
  • potential allergens in food product, and
  • name and address of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor.

Refer to the FDA’s A Food Labeling Guide online, or request a copy from the FDA at 240.402.2375.

The eight food allergens that require an allergen statement are milk, eggs, fish, wheat, crustacean shellfish such as lobster and crab, tree nuts, peanuts, and soybeans. For further guidance on listing allergens, consult the FDA’s Questions and Answers Regarding Food Allergens, including the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (Edition 4) (call 240.402.2371 for a hard copy of the document). You can e-mail the FDA with general questions at industry@fda.gov.  If you are using commercially produced foods as ingredients in your food product, you must also include the food ingredients of that product in the label, as well. For example: Water, sugar, Worcestershire sauce [vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, anchovies…].

10. Am I exempt from the nutrition label requirement?

If you are a retailer with less than $500,000 in annual gross sales, or a food producer who sells directly to consumers and grosses less than $50,000, then you are exempt from nutrition labeling. You do not have to file a small business nutritional labeling exemption to the FDA under these circumstances.

If you sell low-volume products, employ fewer than 100 employees yearly, and sell fewer than 100,000 units in the U.S. yearly, you are exempt from nutrition labeling. You DO have to file a small business nutritional labeling exemption notice yearly with the FDA.

However, if you sell (in the U.S. only) even lower volumes—if you sell fewer than 10,000 units and hire fewer than 10 full-time employees yearly—you do not have to file a small business nutritional labeling exemption notice with the FDA.

For more information regarding nutrition label exemptions, or to submit a small business nutritional labeling exemption form, consult the FDA’s Small Business Nutrition Labeling Exemption or call 240.402.2371.

If you are interested in selling your food products wholesale (such as to grocery stores), you will need to contact GS1 US to obtain a bar code.

11. Where do I send my products for shelf-life testing, nutrition labeling, and ingredient analysis?

For environmental and shelf-life testing and nutrition labels in Maine, choose one of these certified labs:

If you need to have your ingredients analyzed specifically because of nutrient claims (such as wording on your package that claims that your product is a good source of a particular nutrient), there are several certified labs that can conduct food analyses for you. Do a web search or search the Food Technology Buyer’s Guide or contact Northeast Laboratories or Katahdin Analytical Services.

12.  What records should I keep?

Several types of records should be kept on file as part of maintaining a successful food business. We recommend that you create a recall plan in the event a problem arises with your food product in the future and product needs to be recalled from the marketplace. The FDA has guidelines online: Guidance for Industry: Product Recalls, Including Removals and Corrections.

Currently, the FDA is changing food safety laws under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). New requirements on food safety recordkeeping will be developed soon and will impact the Maine food industry. We recommend that you stay updated with these new FDA rules and regulations by visiting their website: Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

If you are monitoring certain parameters of your food product such as pH batch records, water phase salt, and/or microbiological quarterly tests, these records should be maintained and kept for three years if you are producing shelf-stable (canned) food items. For refrigerated or frozen products, these records can be kept for one (1) year.

Depending on what foods you process (seafood, meat, and poultry), the FDA or USDA may require you to have a food safety plan called a HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plan.  One requirement is you must attend a HACCP certification workshop, which we offer yearly at UMaine. You will learn from the workshop that several records need to be created and monitored on a set schedule that will be outlined by your HACCP plan. For more information in regards to HACCP, please visit these websites: FDA’s Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) and FSIS’s HACCP & Pathogen Reduction.

13. What other services does the University of Maine offer?

To view other services that UMaine offers, please visit our food technology website. We encourage you to visit UMaine’s Dr. Matthew Highlands Pilot Plant food processing facility, Consumer Testing Center, and commercial kitchen to learn more about our services and how we can assist you with research and product development. Fees vary depending upon the scope of your project. These are research and development facilities only, not commercially licensed facilities. Specialists at the facilities can help you find equipment, ingredients, and packaging supplies. For a tour of the Pilot Plant, please contact Connie Johnson, Pilot Plant Manager, at connie.young@maine.edu or 207.581.3139.

We offer sensory testing (such as taste tests) through the Consumer Testing Center (207.581.1627).

Questions about our services? Please contact Beth Calder at 207.581.2791 or beth.calder@maine.edu or Jason Bolton at 207.581.1366 or jason.bolton@maine.edu.

14. Where can I get help with improving my business skills, writing a business plan, and marketing my food product?

University of Maine Cooperative Extension offers small-business education in selected counties. Contact your UMaine Cooperative Extension county office or call 800.287.0274 (in Maine) to find your local office. You can also browse UMaine Extension’s Small Business Library and UMaine Extension’s Resources for Small Food Businesses in Maine including Recipe to Market Workshops.

Maine Small Business Development Centers (207.780.4420) provide small-business development assistance.

Mainebusinessworks is an on-line business development resource, with a listing of training, financing, and resources for small businesses in Maine.

Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community can help provide assistance in starting your business.

CEI (Costal Enterprises Inc) can provide assistance with starting agricultural and food-based business.

You can also consider marketing your food product through the Maine Department of Agriculture’s get real. get maine! campaign.

Other resources:

New England Extension Food Safety Consortium, Online Support for New England Food Entrepreneurs

Hall, Stephen F., 2012. Sell Your Specialty Food: Market, Distribute and Profit from Your Kitchen Creation. Volume 5. CreateSpace, Independent Publishing Platform.

Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship, 2001. Small Scale Food Entrepreneurship: A Technical Guide for Food Ventures. Geneva, NY: New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. Includes information on business and marketing, general and specific food products, food safety and sanitation, labeling, processing facilities, and equipment. To obtain a copy, contact Elizabeth Sullivan at 315.787.2273 or e-mail esk15@cornell.edu.  This publication can be accessed online.

Are you considering organic certification? Please contact MOFGA Certification Services.

15. What if I need to find a co-packer, commercial kitchen, or shared-use kitchen in Maine?

We have several co-packers in Maine which are listed below:

  • For salsas and other canned items on a small scale, Pemberton’s Foods in Gray, 800.255.8401.
  • For production on a larger scale and organic certified co-packing, you can contact Schlotterbeck & Foss in Portland at 800.777.4666.
  • Lukas Foods, Biddeford, ME, contact Gregory Willoughby at 207.284.7052.

We also have several shared-use kitchens in Maine:

Another option would be to contact a local restaurant, school, or inn to ask if it might be possible to rent their commercial facility during times when their kitchen isn’t being used.

Good luck in your food endeavors!

We would be glad to hear from you if you have any further questions or feedback in regards to this fact sheet, please contact Beth Calder at beth.calder@maine.edu or 207.581.2791.

Reviewed by Jason Bolton, Assistant Professor of Food Safety and James McConnon, UMaine Extension Business and Economics Specialist and Professor of Economics.

Special thanks to Steve Giguere (Program Manager) of the Maine Department of Agriculture Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations and Lori Holmquist (Director Investigations Branch, New England FDA District Office). 

Brand names, trade names, and company names are included for educational purposes. No endorsement is implied nor is discrimination intended against similar products or services.


Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2009, 2013
Published and distributed in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914, by the University of Maine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Cooperative Extension and other agencies of the USDA provide equal opportunities in programs and employment.

Call 800.287.0274 or TDD 800.287.8957 (in Maine), or 207.581.3188, for information on publications and program offerings from University of Maine Cooperative Extension, or visit extension.umaine.edu.

The University of Maine does not discriminate on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, including transgender status and gender expression, national origin, citizenship status, age, disability, genetic information or veteran’s status in employment, education, and all other programs and activities. The following person has been designated to handle inquiries regarding non-discrimination policies: Director, Office of Equal Opportunity, 101 North Stevens Hall, 207.581.1226.

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Image Description: woman with cheese products; photo by Edwin Remsberg, USDA

Image Description: UMaine's Dr. Matthew Highlands Pilot Plant


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Cooperative Extension Publications
University of Maine, 5741 Libby Hall, Room 114
Orono, ME 04469-5741
Phone: 207.581.3792 | Fax: 207.581.1387
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
207.581.1110
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