Parents of Utah preschoolers who innocently take decorated Santa Claus cookies and other edible homemade goodies to school could be breaking the law.

It's a violation of county health standards, for which the facility could be penalized.The same food regulation that governs restaurants applies to the county's 160 licensed day care centers and 120 preschools, said Brian Bennion, environmental quality specialist for the Salt Lake City-County Health Department.

Bennion said that means that foods for commercial use cannot be prepared or stored in a private home or residence. Home-canned or homemade foods are prohibited in day care centers and preschools.

The federal regulation, adopted by the state and county, has been on the books for 20 years. School and health officials say it has been violated - but not abused.

"We discourage bringing homemade food to school, but realize it is going to happen on an occasional basis - like a birthday," Bennion said. "We don't have the man force to go out on these occasional cases, but our advice is to use caution."

Bennion said good nutrition isn't the primary concern of the health department; sanitation is.

"And some people take sanitation too lightly and don't realize the diseases that can be transmitted."

The health official said 38 percent of food-borne illnesses arise in the home, where sick children, dogs and cats run freely.

"We feel that it can be much higher because a typical parent would not have the training to prepare food for large groups," he said. "When giving it to the public or a variety of people, there are hazards involved."

Jane Hosking, owner of the Learning Tree Schools, agreed. "It's an appropriate regulation. While it's discouraging for moms and dads not to be able to bring treats to their child's class on a special occasion, it is, after all, looking after the welfare of all of our children," she said. "All it would take is one tragedy for all of us to rally around this regulation. So let's support it before we have a tragedy."

Bennion said day care and preschool officials have food permits, obtained only after attending a special class. Their kitchens also are open to regular health department inspections.

Preschools are inspected twice annually; day care centers at least three times a year.

Bennion is convinced the regulation isn't being abused. In the past year, health inspectors, in fact, have discovered only two violations. In both cases, center owners weren't aware of the law.

To protect their schools, Bennion recommends that parents who want to bring treats bring only those that are pre-packaged and store-bought.