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In what’s being hailed as a big step forward for the local food movement, Montana’s new cottage food law – which took effect Oct. 1 – gives entrepreneurs the ability to prepare low-risk food in their home kitchen and then sell those products directly to consumers without having to jump through myriad legal hoops.

It’s a big deal for food trucks, farm stands, small-scale caterers and anyone else who wants to sell locally produced treats because it removes several out-dated, confusing requirements.

House Bill 478, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Kathleen Williams of Bozeman, contains 28 provisions that streamline previously complicated regulations and significantly increase opportunities for small-scale food processing.

Anne Little, the owner of Moonlight Kitchens, two small commercial kitchens that she rents out on Kensington Avenue in Missoula, said the law removes obstacles and risks for businesses such as bakers and people who sell salsa, jams and jellies.

“Many people in Missoula want to buy local foods year-round,” she said. “Until now, small food businesses have had to shoulder the risk that their operation would be fined or shut down because so many regulations have been unclear.”

The law defines low-risk food as products that don’t require storage at a specific temperature in order to keep it safe for human consumption, such as dried fruit, dry mixes and baked goods.

Temporary food service providers can now operate for more days without additional licenses, and small producers can provide free food samples without a retail license. They can also sell directly at any venue – not just farmers markets – and use residential or commercial kitchen equipment in their home kitchen.

The law lists more specific examples of “non-potentially hazardous” foods that can be made in a cottage food operation or home kitchen and broadens the definition of “raw agricultural commodity,” which applies to foods such as honey so they can now be sold without a manufacturing or retail food license.

In a nutshell, the law consolidates and clarifies the previous patchwork of laws and ensures that Montana’s code is consistent with federal regulations.

“These changes come just in time for the final fall harvest,” Little explained. “They pave the way for people who want to preserve the summer’s bounty, people who want to share family recipes and build Missoula’s year-round local food system.”

Ironically, the law means fewer people will need to rent out Little’s commercial kitchen, because they are now allowed to work at home, but she doesn’t mind.

“I support anything that improves access to locally produced food,” she said.

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Rebecca Peart, who operates a local catering company called Crave Catering and Cakes, said the new law will be helpful to a lot of people because it cuts red tape. She still makes a lot of food with meat and other perishables, however, so it won’t affect her much.

“But if I want to bake something at home, now I can,” she said.

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services director Richard Opper said cottage food production is a growing industry in the state and the new law provides many opportunities. His agency supported the law.

“This new law will increase access for consumers to delicious, locally produced food in locations all over Montana, while at the same time helps provide new business opportunities,” he said.

He added that the legislation includes several key safety measures meant to protect consumers. Cottage food producers must register with the local county sanitarian, and they are allowed to market their products online, but can only sell in direct face-to-face transactions. Special labeling is required for cottage foods indicating the source of production.

According to Ed Evanson of the DPHHS Food and Consumer Safety Section, the law also allows greater flexibility for temporary and mobile food establishments.

For example, mobile food operations, which often provide food at seasonal events such as summer fairs, will be held to a consistent standard, pay an annual fee to the state, and be allowed to operate in any jurisdiction of Montana without additional permits or licenses.

“This new law creates more consistency from county to county and makes it easier for temporary and mobile food establishments to operate,” he said.

The law was supported by Grow Montana, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, the Montana Department of Livestock and the Montana Department of Agriculture.

The DPHHS has created an entire webpage dedicated to the new law at http://dphhs.mt.gov/publichealth/FCSS/cottagefood.

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