HB181, which would ease government restrictions for small Utah food producers, was approved by the House 64-7 on Tuesday and is now headed to the Senate.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, and Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, would exempt some farmers and home-based producers from certain state, county or city regulations as long as the food is properly labeled and sold directly to Utah consumers for home consumption.
Would exempt home-based food producers from certain state and local regulations as long as the food is labeled and sold directly for consumption. - Read full text
Feb 13: Small Utah farmers want to be free of some safety rules, but health experts say it’s risky and unfair
Dale Batty can raise, process and then sell whole chickens to Utah consumers, but state rules won’t allow the Vernal farmer to cut up the birds and sell just legs, thighs or breasts.
Batty finds the regulation maddening.
He said customers would prefer to buy the poultry in pieces and selling it that way would be more profitable for him and his wife, Linda, owners of The Old Home Place family farm.
“I don’t want to be a scofflaw,” he said, “but anytime a producer and a consumer are face-to-face and want to trade or sell something, the state ought to stay out of it.”
Batty and other small producers are keeping a close watch on HB181, the Home Consumption and Homemade Food Act.
The bill, making its way through the Utah Legislature, would exempt some home-based producers, like Batty, from certain state, county or city regulations as long as the food is properly labeled and sold directly to Utah consumers for home consumption.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, and Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, is modeled after a similar law in Wyoming. Roberts has introduced similar “food freedom” bills in previous sessions, but without success.
The idea has plenty of opposition, as health and agricultural leaders as well as business groups say the proposal puts public health at risk and is unfair to larger producers that are following safety rules.
Food freedom fighters believe regulations are necessary when buying a product in a grocery store, as consumers don’t know where items originated or how they were made.
But when buying directly from the source, buyers and sellers don’t need the strict oversight.
“For me this bill has always been about allowing people to sell food and food products to their friends, neighbors and local community and reduce the [government] burden to do that,” Roberts told the House Natural Resources and Agricultural Committee recently.
Under HB181, small, unregulated farmers and food producers would be required to post a “buyer beware” sign where the product is sold to inform consumers that the food that they are about to purchase has “not been certified, licensed, regulated or inspected by state or local authorities.”
If they sell at farmers markets, these unregulated farmers and producers also would need to be separated from their larger, inspected counterparts.
There are a few exceptions in the bill including raw dairy products, domesticated rabbit meat and poultry, if the producer slaughters more than 1,000 birds annually.
In the past decade, consumers in Utah and across the country have shown a greater interest in meeting the farmers who grow their food and knowing how it is produced, Roberts said. The result has been a boom in the number of small farms, farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs.
“This bill gives small entrepreneurs and producers the same chance that all of our grandparents had, to grow produce and sell to neighbors and friends,” he said.
One of those who would benefit is Batty, the Vernal chicken farmer. He raises just a few hundred birds each year but still must follow the burdensome and expensive restrictions created by state agriculture and health officials to keep large processing facilities, 10 times his size, safe.
Batty said even if the rules were lifted for small producers, it is in his best interest as a farmer and businessman to make sure his processing procedures are safe and clean and that customers don’t get sick.
“I know that we are so much cleaner than the standard chicken plant,” he said. “I depend on word of mouth, so I can’t afford to have someone get a bad bird.”
The bill won’t move forward without a fight on numerous fronts, including health officials, fellow farmers and business leaders.
“We have broad public health concerns with this bill,” Angela Dunn, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, told the committee. “There is no way for us to mitigate risk or stop the sale of food we deem hazardous.”
Sterling Brown, vice president of the Utah Farm Bureau, which operates two farmers markets along the Wasatch Front, said the bill lacks details to ensure consumers are well-informed about what they are buying.
“Is a 4-by-8 plywood sign” enough to ensure consumer safety? he asked.
Russ Kohler, owner of Heber Valley Artisan Cheese in Midway, wondered what will happen if unregulated products are allowed into farmer markets and a health problem arises.
“How is anyone going to know it wasn’t my cheese?” he asked. “It will affect other producers including small farmers and ranchers, like myself, who are playing by the rules.”
Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association, called the bill a “complete abrogation” of state regulations.
He told the committee it was “fundamentally unfair” to tell commercial farmers and producers they must comply with health and safety regulations but tell another group “those things don’t apply.”
Despite the opposition, the bill passed out of committee 6-5. It is now being considered in the House.
Rep. Christine F. Watkins, R-Price, was one of the committee members who supported the bill.
“People are desperate for healthy food that they know where it has been grown,” she said. “You can go to the store and it’s a lottery.”
HB181, she added “is a real service for the people who want it.”