Food Freedom Unleashed in Montana

On April 30th, Montana’s governor signed a bill into law that makes Montana one of the easiest states in which to sell a wide range of direct-to-consumer local food products produced in a home kitchen. This can be good news in the era of COVID, when we’re seeing traditional food service work shut down just as small businesses pop up with creative new offerings. Also, COVID has created more demand for local food as supply chains have been interrupted and health (and healthy food choices) is much more on people’s radar. Montana’s “Local Food Choice Act” promises opportunities to Montana producers to increase their economic stability, and an increased range of healthy food products to all.

(Well, almost all…As is typical with these state “food freedom” or “cottage food” laws, sales can only happen intrastate. Sales across state lines is forbidden.)

Under the Local Food Choice Act, entrepreneurs may prepare and sell nearly any value-added food product from their home kitchen, without a license or going through an inspection. The exception involves meat- no meat may be included in the preparation. Producers can sell items containing chicken, however! (Chicken is not considered meat in this context.) Producers can also sell raw milk. This law goes beyond permission to sell foods prepared in a home kitchen so long as they are “non-potentially hazardous.” Most states in the union only allow baked goods, candy, and high acid canned goods like pickles. Montana is shaking things up by allowing home-based production of nearly any food dish, so long as it doesn’t contain meat.

Of course, there are other limiting factors. Again, sales across state lines are not allowed. The sale of chicken and chicken-containing products is limited to those producing less than 1,000 birds per year. Folks can sell raw milk but only if they have a limited number of lactating animals: five cows, 10 goats, or 10 sheep. Also, products must come with a warning that they are homemade and have not been licensed, permitted, certified, packaged, labeled, nor inspected.

This may be good news for farmers and ranchers in Montana who have their eye on diversified product offerings. What about our producers in other states who hope to produce pickles and chicken salad for the masses? Note that state laws don’t pass in a vacuum. The domino effect of these laws is pretty common. As with other hot-button legal topics, it takes a while for one state to pass what feels like a monumental change in the law, but once one state does, others follow – often, many others.

As with any issue, the picture is multi-dimensional. The requirement that food sold to the public be produced in licensed, inspected kitchens comes from an intention to build trust in our food supply and minimize the incidence of food-borne illness. Some people worry that allowing production from uninspected kitchens will result in more people getting sick. Whether such opposition is right or wrong, all producers should be aware of the potential risk that someone could become ill after consuming their food.

Production in a home kitchen may be perfectly legal, but it still is subject to the same injury liability laws as food production in a commercial kitchen. When someone gets sick, insurance is essential both to secure a good attorney for a defense and to pay out on any liability that results. Farmers and ranchers often assume that the same farm liability coverage that protects them from slip and fall injuries will be there for them with food-related injuries. The opposite is much more likely: farm liability policies do not cover food-borne illnesses of any type. Farmers should call their insurance agent to discuss options for coverage in the planning stages of a new venture.

Farm Commons has a couple of guides that are perfect for getting up to speed on the logistics- this can help build anyone’s confidence before they talk with an insurance agent. Check out our 2-hour tutorial on farm insurance, viewable anytime at our website. For our non-farming agriculture professionals, consider taking our upcoming Guiding Resilience workshop- we cover insurance options for scenarios like this.