Do I Need a Health Permit for my Business?

Man working in a food truck.
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A health permit is a permit to sell foods and beverages that are cooked or served to the public, and which must be regulated for public safety. Health permits are typically part of the domain of a county health department. Regulations governing requirements for types of food businesses that require health permits vary widely.

Businesses That Need Health Permits

Although the requirements for health permits vary tremendously by location, you will find that these businesses will commonly need a health permit:

  • Restaurants
  • Stores selling packaged foods
  • Wholesale food manufacturers and distributors
  • Street vendors
  • Food vendors at flea markets and farmers markets
  • Food trucks and ice cream trucks
  • Vending machines
  • Tattoo parlors, beauty salons, and nail salons
  • Waste haulers and generators
  • Beverage vendors, like distilleries or craft breweries

In general, anyone who manufactures, sells, or distributes products that can be consumed by humans or that touch the human body (like nail salons) need to have a health permit and an annual inspection. This includes foods you make at home and sell to the public. 

When You Don't Need a Health Permit

If you are selling the following types of products, some health departments do not require a permit: 

  • Sellers of pre-packaged foods, minimally packaged foods (including fruits and vegetables), ready-to-eat foods like donuts or cookies
  • Sellers of hot beverages where no processing is required
  • Sellers of dry ready-to-eat beverages like coffee or tea
  • Sellers of pre-packaged frozen foods. 

Health Permits For Bake Sales and Potlucks

Most bake sales for non-profit functions do not need a health permit. The King County, Washington, health department provides this definition of a bake sale: 

A residential kitchen in a private home or other location, if only baked goods that are not potentially hazardous food are prepared and wrapped in a sanitary manner for sale or service by a nonprofit organization operating for religious, charitable, or educational purposes and if the consumer is informed by a clearly visible placard at the sales or service location that the foods are prepared in a kitchen that is not inspected by a regulatory authority.

Potlucks, donor kitchens, daycare in private homes, and similar situations often do not need a health permit. 

Getting a Health Permit

Contact your local county health department for the requirements for a health permit and the types of food establishments that are exempt from the requirement for a health permit. See the directory of local health departments from the National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO). 

What Health Inspectors are Looking For

Health inspections are conducted differently in each state, but there are some basic items that inspectors are looking for: 

Food Safety News says:

environmental health inspectors check that safeguards are in place to protect food from contamination by food handlers, cross-contamination, and contamination from other sources...

That means they will be checking to make sure raw meat isn't in contact with surfaces, that employees wash their hands, and that rodents and other pests that can cause illnesses are not in evidence. They may also look for packaging and items that come in contact with foods, to make sure that mold or bacteria aren't transmitted.