Do I need a health department variance?

yogurt production


The health inspector requires a yogurt variance certificate from the agriculture department. The agriculture department requires a flow chart for yogurt making. I am not packing yogurt or supplying others—just making housemade yogurt for mango lassis. Do I need the variance certificate?

– Mohinder Arora, Owner, Aangan Sweets and Catering, West Chester, Ohio


With increased diversity and quality of artisanal food products made in house, health codes are being increasingly challenged. Specifically, yogurt is made at a warm temperature, about 110 degrees Fahrenheit for four or more hours, sometimes as long as eight or 10. And it’s been done that way for thousands of years. The problem, of course, is that milk is a potentially hazardous food, and health codes stipulate that potentially hazardous foods must be kept out of the danger zone (41-135 degrees Fahrenheit; varies slightly by local code). As such, most health codes specify something like, "Potentially hazardous foods exposed to this temperature range for a cumulative total of more than four hours are not safe to eat." What you are doing when making yogurt is intentionally circumventing the health code to safely make a product from a potentially hazardous food. Food safety expert Laxman Kanduri, based in Princeton, N.J., confirms: “If you are making your own yogurt, you need a variance. You will need a written HACCP Plan or process schedule done by someone whose credentials are approved by the health department.”

The good news is that once the variance is filed and approved, you are good to go, provided you continue to observe the procedure outlined in the application. Requirements for both elements required in the variance application and who is qualified to do it vary by municipality. Some operations are able to complete the application themselves, but most engage the services of a food safety consultant, university extension agent, or academic food science program because the application is generally fairly extensive and technical. For example, the state of Michigan requires the following application components for a variance:

1. Food product description

2. General facility and specialized processing equipment overview

3. Flow diagram of food processing steps

4. Hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) plan

5. Standard operating procedures (SOPs)

As well as, for packaged products:

6. Accredited commercial lab analytical test results for validation, if required

7. Labeling, if required

The variance application represents a pricey expense, but without it you risk product discards, fines, or other sanctions including closure. As always, good communication with your health department is key to making sure you are doing what is required. More on applying for health department variances here.

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