Lonnie and Kristy Thompson make a mean salsa that sometimes leaves customers in tears. But people keep coming back for the homemade blend, produced in the couple’s kitchen with Carolina Reapers, habaneros and other locally sourced ingredients.

“I’ve had people drive three hours just to pick up two jars of salsa from me,” Lonnie says. “They can’t find anything like it anywhere else.”

The couple’s spicy asparagus, bell pepper relish and other specialties also earn praise. But most production in the Thompson kitchen will stop on Jan. 1, 2020, when new rules take effect that will gut one of the most advanced “food freedom” laws in the United States.

For Kristy, who is unable to work outside the home due to seizures and diabetic neuropathy, the crackdown will limit one of her only sources of income.

“If any part of our cottage kitchen goes down, that’s part of her livelihood that disappears,” Lonnie says.

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To be clear: The policy shift is not due to any health or safety violations. Nobody got sick. Nobody complained. Instead, the law’s dismantling is based on little more than imagined threats.

Lonnie, who works full time at a Bismarck grill and bar, appreciates the concern. But he says home-based food producers already do a good job policing themselves.

“None of us wants to get people sick,” he says. “All it would take is one mistake one time, and you’re out of business. Nobody would want to come back to you.”

Despite growing demand for homemade foods, burdensome regulations exist almost everywhere.

A 2017 study from the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that fights for economic liberty, finds that rural, low-income communities suffer the most when states restrict sales at farmers markets, roadside stands and private kitchens. Women in particular lose opportunities for upward mobility.

North Dakota lawmakers fought for people’s right to earn a living in 2017, passing a commonsensical law that put everything on the cottage food menu except raw dairy products and certain meats.

Critics within the North Dakota Department of Health immediately pushed back. They tried to undercut the law in 2018 using the administrative rulemaking process but backed off in the face of public outcry. They tried again with new legislation earlier this year.

Shortly after the bill failed, they introduced the same restrictions as administrative rules and finally found success on Dec. 3.

They are nothing if not persistent. But their actions represent an illegal circumvention of law.

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The Administrative Rules Committee had no House majority, Senate majority or gubernatorial signature to override a measure approved by the democratically elected Legislature.

Fans of hot salsa are now shedding tears for a different reason than spicy peppers.

“We actually had two customers cry because we’re not going to be able to sell their products to them anymore,” Lonnie says. “Losing this business means a lot to them and a lot to us.”

McDonald is a senior research analyst at the Institute for Justice. James is an Institute for Justice writer.