Food safety regulations are some of the most important laws we have to protect public health and safety, but they can also be some of the most confusing aspects of running a successful local food business. For a long time now, many of Montana’s local food producers and consumers have been dealing with a frustrating patchwork of food safety regulations.
As a local food policy specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology and coordinator for the Grow Montana Food Policy Coalition, I’ve heard from folks across the state that are contending with the current food regulations. I’ve talked to businesses selling at farmers markets, who must navigate different levels of regulations and enforcement in each county they visit, and value-added producers who want to comply with all of the rules, but have no idea how to find out exactly what those regulations are. I’ve spoken with conscious consumers, who want a legal way to purchase fresh foods like eggs, canned goods, and poultry raised on small, local farms. And I’ve also heard from county sanitarians, who are trying to protect public health and help local businesses, but have very limited resources to do so.
But now, for the first time, those who are impacted by Montana’s food regulations can have a say through an innovative government initiative, the Montana Food Policy Modernization Project. I’m happy to have this opportunity to tell you more about the process, and how you can get involved.
Many of our modern food safety laws were written in response to how most food is produced in America— through a long, industrialized food chain. But as the local food movement has grown, producers and consumers have noticed that current rules and regulations don’t always reflect the realities of a smaller-scale, more transparent, local food system. They can cause burden and confusion for small producers, limiting their success. In Montana, our producers face an additional challenge, because jurisdiction for food safety regulations is split between three state agencies, as well as a network of county sanitarians who are given relative independence compared to a lot of other states.
During the 2013 state legislative session, problems related to these regulations led to a number of bills dealing with food safety. There were a lot of debates that seemed to generate more questions than answers. But the one thing that everyone could agree on was that the current system has problems, and that the agencies in charge of food safety regulations need to do more to communicate with each other and the public.
Representative Kathleen Williams, of Bozeman, found a solution when she crafted HB-630, the bill creating the Montana Food Policy Modernization Project. The bill directs the Departments of Agriculture, Livestock, and Health and Human Services to work together to evaluate all of the current food laws for inefficiencies and inconsistencies. One of the goals of the project is to increase opportunities for local food businesses, so the departments are also specifically asked to look into how home kitchens can be safely used to prepare certain foods, and how many commercial kitchens are available across the state.
Public input is the bedrock of the Montana Food Policy Modernization Project. The Departments are holding three public meetings, and also accepting written comments until February 7th. Public comments will lead to changes in how the Departments that regulate food work with one another. They will also be included in a report that will be delivered to the Interim Economic Affairs Subcommittee of the Legislature this spring. This subcommittee can choose to turn the report’s recommendations into a bill for the 2015 legislature, leading to more statutory improvements.
During the public meetings that took place over the past month, many topics were discussed: from small-scale poultry processing to the need for streamlined enforcement across counties. Ideas for a cottage food law, which could allow small food businesses to start out of a home kitchen and then scale up once they are more established, were also a hot topic.
Overall, one of the themes most reiterated throughout the process has been the need to make the regulations easier to understand and comply with across all counties. Montana’s local producers want to do what is legal and right to protect the public’s health; but in order to do so, they need a clear and fair path to follow.
NCAT’s Grow Montana Food Policy Coalition works to support our Montana’s food and agricultural economy through common-sense solutions. One of the most common-sense things we can do to support local food in Montana right now is fix the tangled web of food regulations that local producers must navigate in order to bring their products to market. Doing so would keep more money in our communities and increase the availability of healthy, local food for all Montanans.
The Montana Food Policy Modernization Project represents an unprecedented opportunity for everyone, producer or consumer, to have a say regarding how food is regulated in the state. If you have something to add to this conversation, I hope you will submit a written comment: the more detailed the better. Comments are being accepted through February 17th, and can be e-mailed to [email protected]. That’s [email protected]. For more information, visit Grow Montana’s website at www.growmontana.ncat.org. Again, that’s www.growmontana.ncat.org.
In Missoula with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, I’m Stephanie Potts for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit AERO online at aeromt.org.
This commentary originally aired on Montana Public Radio on January 30, 2014.