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Food safety expert says Montana’s ‘Food Freedom’ law puts public in danger


Like taking a new car in for repairs while it is still under warranty, the Montana Local Food Choice Act of 2021 will be getting renewed attention during the 2023 legislative session in Helena. But the 2023 Senate Bill 202 at this point does little more than prohibit local boards from getting involved in the issue

Former Montana food safety official Jeff Havens, who has moved on to Walla Walla, WA, continues to fear that the Big Sky State has rolled back too much in the name of “Food Freedom.”

Havens wants to see the MLFCA amended to address high-risk canned foods. As adopted in 2021, Montana’s “Food Freedom” law puts the public at risk of botulism poisoning. The potent neurotoxin is created under low-acid, low-oxygen environments and cannot be detected by sight, smell or taste.

Botulism recently took the life of a well-known Jackson Hole, WY, outfitter and guide. According to the Wyoming Department of Health, consumption of canned soup was the likely cause.

The MLFCA opens up the production and sale of such high-risk homemade foods. Montana previously had a cottage food law on the books to permit low-risk homemade foods such as most pies and cakes.

Within days of the passage of the MLFCA, Havens recalled that a Campylobacter jejuni illness outbreak was caused by raw milk marketed under the new law. The raw milk supplier responsible for the outbreak reportedly left Montana in early 2022.

The changes to the MLFCA proposed in SB 202 include:

— Boards of County Commissions are made subject to the law where Farmer’s Markets are concerned.

— Transactions are not subject to regulations by Boards of County Commissions.

— Homemade food and food products sold at a farmer’s market or farm stand are subject same label and other requirements.

The primary sponsor of SB 202 is Sen. Gregory Hertz, R-Polson. He is also the father of the MLFCA.

Hertz is the president and CEO of Moodys Market Inc., which operates six grocery stores including Super 1 Foods in Polson; Harvest Foods in Ronan, Lolo, Thompson Falls, and St. Maries, ID; and Blacktail Grocery in Lakeside. Moodys Market Inc. currently employs about 225 employees.

“The level of absurdity that Montana has fallen is already appalling and poised to fall even further if Hertz’s new bill is adopted,” Havens said.

At a minimum, Havens says the Food and Consumer Safety unit of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services “has the duty and obligation to create a guidance document, concerning commercial food ingredients” for use under the Act. It should limit products to only intrastate ingredients.

“Ideally, parties with legal standing would challenge this unconstitutional law to prevent additional consumer illnesses and possible injuries and deaths,” Havens said. The MLFCA violates the “single subject” rule of the Montana State Constitution, he says.

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