Montana Food Freedom Bill Now Law

On April 30, Governor Greg Gianforte signed Senate Bill 199 (SB 199), also known as the Montana Local Food Choice Act, into law. Senator Greg Hertz (R-Polson) sponsored the bill. The new law goes into effect immediately.

SB 199 allows the unregulated intrastate sale of most homemade foods from producers to informed end consumers including all raw dairy products if the producer keeps no more than “five lactating cows, 10 lactating goats or 10 lactating sheep” on the farm for the production of milk. There are limited testing requirements for raw milk producers. Producers can sell poultry under the Act if they slaughter and process no more than 1,000 birds during a calendar year and comply with federal recordkeeping requirements.

Livestock producers and homemade food producers may sell “meat and meat products processed at a state-licensed establishment or a federally approved meat establishment” but only if they have obtained a temporary food establishment permit.

Producers must inform the end consumer that the homemade food they are selling has not been licensed, permitted, certified, packaged, labeled nor inspected. Sales and delivery under SB 199 can take place at a farm, ranch, home office, “traditional community social event” (the term includes farmers markets) as defined by the bill, or another location agreed to between the producer and/or the producer’s agent and the informed end consumer.

The bill states that a state or local government agency cannot require “licensure, permitting, certification, packaging, labeling, or inspection that pertains to the preparation, serving, use, consumption, delivery, or storage of homemade food or a homemade food product….” SB 199 does not prevent a state or local health officer from inspecting a producer selling homemade food if the “officer is investigating a complaint based on an illness or an outbreak suspected to be directly related to that homemade food or homemade food product.”

Given his business background, Hertz is one of the last people you would expect to sponsor a bill like SB 199, having owned and operated grocery stores the past 30 years. He sponsored a similar bill as a state representative in 2017, but the legislation died in the Senate after passing in the House. A difference this time around was that Montanans have a legislature and governor that are more in line with the “live and let live” liberty-minded views of its people; a supporter of the bill spoke at the House committee hearing on SB 199 about rugged individualism and a culture of self-sufficiency being part of the Montana way of life. In the past, Montana has had a government that favored a regulatory scheme closer to California’s than neighboring Wyoming’s. Hertz commented that a cottage food bill which passed into law in 2015 was 50 pages long.

Hertz did a masterful job moving the bill through the legislature. There was strong opposition to the bill from organizations such as the Montana Milk Producers Association, the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL), the Montana Medical Association, the Montana Veterinary Medical Association, public health officials and several sustainable agriculture nonprofits. If someone had only seen the committee hearings and known nothing else about SB 199, it would have been easy for them to believe the bill wasn’t going to pass. Hertz was able to overcome the opposition by successfully lobbying committee members one on one until he had the votes he needed. He characterized SB 199 as a jobs bill, and that message helped carry the day. The support for the bill eventually overwhelmed opponents. The state legislative website tallies up for each bill the proponents and opponents who contact it; 1,515 people contacted the site in support of SB 199 making it the fifth most popular bill this session—only 55 opposed.

The most contentious part of the bill was the legalization of raw dairy sales. Something proponents had in their favor was that SB 199 marked the fifth consecutive session a raw milk bill was before the legislature and at least some legislators were getting tired of having to consider the issue over and over again. Hertz said during the House committee hearing on the bill, “We need to put the raw milk discussion behind us.” He pointed out that in states like Wyoming and Maine that have also adopted food freedom bills (in Maine at the local level with 80 towns passing food sovereignty ordinances), there hasn’t been a single foodborne illness outbreak even though there is no limit on the herd size in either state. One other factor in favor of legal raw milk sales was testimony at the committee hearings that only 45 Grade A dairies remain in Montana.

In addition to Hertz, much credit for the passage of SB 199 is due to Chris Rosenau, an activist from the Bitterroot who has spent thousands of uncompensated hours working for legalization of raw milk sales in Montana. In 2017 Rosenau was instrumental in the state government’s adoption of a policy allowing the distribution of raw milk through Montana securities law. She has been working for legalization of raw milk sales since 2012 and was able to gather substantial support for SB 199 through her work for the advocacy group Raw Milk Montana.

DOL tried to kill the bill by posting a fiscal note claiming the meat and poultry provisions as originally written in SB 199 would cost Montana its state meat inspection program and over $1 million a year in funding from USDA. Hertz amended the meat and poultry language, successfully addressing that concern. DOL had some of the more onerous requirements in the country for producers processing poultry on the farm under the federal 1,000-bird exemption. The number of farmers processing under that exemption should increase significantly.

With the accelerating deterioration of quality in the conventional food supply, passage of bills like SB 199 is becoming more important. In his testimony on the bill before the House Human Affairs Committee, Hertz said, “We have traded our health, our food security, our local economy for highly processed foods, all in the name of food safety.”

When it comes to health, food safety, food security, and local economies, locally produced food is superior to industrial food in every respect. Congratulations to the people of Montana for the passage of SB 199.

Photo Credit: Roger Lipera on Unsplash
On a ranch near Ronan, Montana a beautiful view of the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains