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Raw Milk Debate Returns To The Legislature

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HELENA — A bill gaining momentum at the Legislature would allow Montanans to sell food from their homes directly to consumers without any government oversight. It would also legalize the direct sale of raw milk.

The bill’s supporters say the government has no business telling people what food they can buy, but opponents say a 2015 law that opened up licensure for homemade food enterprises already encourages the sale of local foods while also protecting consumers. 

Senate Bill 199, or the Montana Local Food Choice Act, includes a section that would make it possible for owners of small dairy herds to sell unpasteurized milk, a proposal that drew its own set of opponents with concerns about the risk of foodborne illness.

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson presented the bill to the House Human Services Committee Wednesday. 

“I’m not asking for any government stimulus,” Hertz said. “I’m not asking for any grants. I’m not asking for any credits. I’m just asking the government to get out of our way.” 

SB 199 passed the Senate 31-18 mostly along party lines on March 1. Missoula Senator Shane Morigeau was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill, which would exempt homemade food producers from needing what’s called a “cottage food” license to sell their product. It would also exempt them from inspections unless there is an outbreak of foodborne illness.

The only things not up for sale under the bill are meat and meat products, which still need to be processed in a federally licensed and inspected facility. 

The bill says transactions — either for raw milk or homemade food — can only happen face-to-face, and homemade food can’t be sent to retailers or restaurants. However, there is nothing in the bill that would stop a person purchasing homemade food for a “traditional community social event,” such as a wedding, funeral or potluck.

Opponents at the bill’s hearing said the 2015 Cottage Food Act already gives home cooks plenty of leeway to sell their product. 

The Cottage Food Act allows people to sell homemade food as long as it follows certain labeling restrictions. Cottage food producers need to label their food with any allergens it may contain and a list of ingredients in order by weight. It also has to include the address of the producer. 

The bill was sponsored by then-representative Kathleen Williams. It received broad bipartisan support in both the House of Representative and the Senate. Only 12 representatives and four senators voted against the measure.

The proposed Local Food Choice Act removes many of the regulations the Cottage Food Act imposed. Home cooks wouldn’t have to label their product at all, but would have to tell their customers that the food is homemade. 

Labeling is a point of contention with opponents of the bill. Supporters say the threat of providing a bad product to customers is enough to dissuade people from creating that bad product, while opponents pointed out that sellers can’t control or track where their food goes once it’s sold.

Supporters say the bill would help support local Montana food producers and their customers. 

“Montana is a breadbasket,” said Julie Martin, of Kalispell. “Montanans would easily be able to provide for and sustain ourselves if the government would simply get out of our way and let us do what we do best.”

Some opponents to the bill, however, raised the threat of foodborne illness, particularly when it comes to the raw milk portion of the bill. Marty Zaluski is the state veterinarian at the Montana Department of Livestock. 

“While foodborne illness from raw milk is rare, the CDC assesses that the likelihood of getting sick from raw milk is 150 times that of consumption with regular milk.”

Sen. Hertz said current law has propagated a “thriving black market,” and suggested he could find a raw milk seller near the Capitol within a matter of hours.

Vets and medical professionals testifying against the bill were especially concerned about brucellosis, a disease found in elk and bison around Yellowstone National Park. The disease is transmissible to humans through contaminated milk. The bacterial infection has a 2% death rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can also cause recurring fevers, arthritis, chronic fatigue and depression long after the infection has passed.

Dr. Jeanne Rankin is a veterinarian in Central Montana. She said even though the disease can be vaccinated against, raw milk from vaccinated cows isn’t necessarily safe. 

“These cows that were vaccinated — it’s scary to think of — are actually shedding that vaccine virus that’s capable of disease in the milk,” Rankin said. 

Krista Lee Evans spoke on behalf of the Montana Milk Producers Association.

“If I wanted to take raw milk as the after soccer snack for my kid’s soccer team,” Lee Evans said, “then I could do that and there’s nothing in this bill, that would require any notification to the parents of the children who are receiving that raw milk.”

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has attempted to pass a law to allow the sale of raw milk. Every session since 2013 has had a bill attempting to either outright legalize raw milk or allow a “small herd exemption,” which would allow people to sell raw milk with a certain license if they only have a certain number of cows. 

In 2013, 2015, and 2017, small-herd exemption laws passed the House with relatively wide margins before being smashed by the Senate. 

James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. 

james22bradley@gmail.comtwitter.com/jayx15a 

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James Bradley
UM Legislative News Service