A baker in the kitchen reaches for a plate of pie (Photo courtesy of Pxhere)
Some small food producers in Montana are upset with what they see as a lack of clarity in the Montana Local Food Choice Act.
Passed in the last legislative session as Senate Bill 199, the law exempts certain homemade food producers from requirements put on industrial food producers like licensing, permitting, labeling and inspection.
Pamela Ford, owner of Triple F Pigs as well as Cluckers and Cream out of Dillon, said that while she appreciates “food freedom” and doesn’t want regulation, she does want clarity on standards for producers. Other producers also have said they appreciate the regulation change as a way to make extra cash.
She gave the example of poultry processing and said how “in a clean manner” can mean different things to different people.
She said to “Joe” down the street, clean could mean throwing the birds on the concrete and cleaning them up, but to her it means stainless steel tables.
“There needs to be basic guidelines, but it still has to enable us to have our food freedom,” Ford said.
During a workshop Friday for producers on understanding the law and help on avoiding liability, Sam Blomquist with the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) spoke about who is considered a homemade food producer, where homemade food can be sold, who it can be sold to and where it can be made.
Blomquist said under the Local Food Choice Act, producers have to make their product in a home kitchen, even if they have access to a professional kitchen, and can only sell to informed customers within Montana.
There are exceptions, like producers cannot sell meat, and poultry producers can’t slaughter more than 1,000 birds a year without inspection, due to federal regulations. Producers also have to sell at community events, such as weddings, sporting events and farmer’s markets. Producers cannot sell to restaurants or to other vendors as that wouldn’t be a direct-to-consumer transaction.
Raw milk can also be sold under the new law, which was a point of debate as the bill made its way through the legislature. A Daily Montanan investigation earlier this year found 10 confirmed cases of illness in Montana due to raw milk since 2020.
Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, introduced the legislation and said that the intention behind the law was to “legalize what’s been going on for centuries.”
“The main purpose is just being able to produce foods that you might grow on your farm or ranch, and then you can turn around and do a value added product and sell it to your neighbors,” Hertz said in an interview Friday.
He said there were people who were making and selling cookies, pies and wedding cakes that were previously illegal, but now fall under the umbrella of SB 199.
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people who have been using the law to grow and expand their business and make a little extra money with their farmer ranch operations,” he said.
He said legislators might clarify the law in 2023 if necessary, something the producers at the training expressed interest in.
“All of the safety and legal issues I think are not very well advertised,” said Rachel Bergeron, who owns Pine Cabin Co., a microgreens operation out of Libby.
Blomquist said the producer’s liability if someone gets sick from your food does not go away under this law.
“In the homemade foods, there’s no inspection of the facility, there’s no process review, and there’s really no regulation on what is labeled,” she said. “The upside is that it’s a lot easier to produce under this law, the downside is just making sure that you understand the liability.”
“Just because something is allowable doesn’t mean that you’re not liable.”
She said the main way to manage liability is making sure producers are doing everything they can to create a safe product, they are adequately insured and they shield personal assets from business liabilities.
The workshop Friday was one in a series AERO is hosting aimed at educating producers on the new changes under SB 199. For more information go to https://aeromt.org/what-we-do/value-added/.
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