The Grow Montana Food Policy Coalition, which is housed at and coordinated by NCAT, continues its efforts to streamline and improve the state’s current patchwork of confusing and complicated food-safety rules. It is dedicated to making these rules work for Montana’s producers and food entrepreneurs.

Grow Montana currently is focused on helping craft a cottage food law that will truly expand economic opportunities for home-based food businesses. This process began with passage of House Bill 630 during the 2013 Montana Legislature. The bill funded a public process to gather input about Montana’s food regulations and how they could be improved. Additionally, it required the three departments responsible for food regulation (Agriculture, Livestock, and Public Health and Human Services) to assess food laws and develop a report.

As part of the HB 630 process, the agencies ended up holding multiple public meetings in addition to accepting written comments and meeting twice with a small advisory group comprised of various stakeholders in the current food system. By May 2014, the three agencies had submitted their report to the Economic Affairs Interim Committee.

Among other recommendations, the three agencies endorsed creating a Montana “cottage food” law by revising the current farmers market exemption in state statute. The revision would allow for direct sales of non-potentially hazardous foods at any direct-sale venue. The report stated non-potentially hazardous food could include baked goods, candy, preserves, and honey. Along with this specific list, the agencies supported including language to make it clear that cottage food was not limited to just the products provided as examples. The three agencies recommended a one-time registration for each cottage food operation with the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Grow Montana participated in the process mandated by HB 630, including serving on the advisory group that met with the agencies. Despite some clear recommendations in the report, the Economic Affairs Interim Committee did not submit a bill request for the 2015 legislative session to implement the cottage food provisions. Therefore, Grow Montana asked Rep. Kathleen Williams, the sponsor of HB 630, to request a bill be drafted to implement the cottage food recommendations in the agencies’ report.

An important part of any new law, as Grow Montana sees it, is that it must include the words “cottage food” and contain all the necessary regulations in one place so home-based producers can easily find the information they need. Grow Montana wants a revised law to include a list of possible cottage food products, including jam, jellies, dried fruit, candy, cereal, granola, dry mixes, vinegar, dried herbs, and baked goods that don’t require temperature control for safety. The law should also include a list of products that would not be considered cottage food, including meat and poultry products, salsa, canned low-acid fruits, or acidified vegetables. However, Grow Montana supports the agencies’ request that, in addition to the specific products listed, the law make it clear that the examples are not comprehensive. The law should also clearly define how cottage food producers need to label their products and how and where to register as a producer.

At this time, Montana Legislative Services is still working on drafting language for a bill. It is too soon to tell if there will be one bill focused on implementing the agencies’ cottage food recommendations or whether those provisions will be included in a larger bill. Grow Montana will be tracking these developments and suggesting language for the creation of a specific cottage food law.

As more consumers become interested in supporting local food economies and more producers begin starting their own food businesses, Grow Montana feels clarity in the law and regulations is vitally important. The state needs to make sure local producers can easily find the regulations so there is less guesswork and confusion. Montana statutes currently don’t include the term “cottage food,” even though some provisions exist under the farmers markets law. By creating a cottage food law, all the applicable rules and regulations will be accessible in one place, which will help clear the way for more local food entrepreneurship.