A Utah lawmaker wants to make it easier for people to make homemade food products and give them directly to consumers or sell those products in public.
House Bill 181, sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salt Lake City, was voted out of Senate committee in a 6-1 vote and passed by the House 64-7 last week. It awaits a Senate vote.
Karin Allen, a USU Extension specialist in food quality and entrepreneurship, told The Herald Journal that if the bill becomes law she sees “an even greater need for Extension to provide education and home food safety information since it will be unregulated.”
The bill states that producers can be exempt from city, county or state licensing, permitting, certification and inspection requirements under certain circumstances. The food must be made and sold in-state, be sold directly to people for home consumption — no reselling — and producers must inform buyers through a disclosure statement on a label that says it is not for resale and was made without state or local inspection. Producers must still comply with state business license requirements.
The bill would not exclude agencies like the Utah Department of Health from investigating a foodborne illness.
The bill does not apply to meat, poultry or raw dairy products, with certain exceptions.
“I think it’s important to understand there’s a large food movement going on — people want to buy local,” Roberts said during a Senate committee hearing on Feb. 16. “This bill, among other things, attempts to help accomplish that, allows home-based producers, small farms, small operations to create food products prepared in their home kitchen and sell directly to end consumers.”
HB 181 stands in contrast to Utah’s cottage food industry, which allows people to make food in the home or a commercial kitchen elsewhere under strict regulation from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
Margaret Gittins, owner of BB Sweet Shack in Paradise, has some concerns about the legislation, seeing that she had to get certification to sell food made out of her home.
“I have a little bit of mixed emotions, actually, just because I know what I’ve done to be legal and receive my licensing,” she said. “I would think it’s only fair that people have to live up to that same standard.”
Aside from relaxing regulations for homemade food products, HB 181 would also open the door for these homemade producers to sell their products at direct-to-sale farmers markets ― but only if the food is clearly labeled as uncertified and unregulated. The unregulated products must also be kept separate from traditional farmers’ markets, or at least put in its own section.
Mary Laine is in charge of the Cache Valley Gardeners’ Market, which includes food vendors.
The market vendors adhere to Utah’s cottage food regulations, Laine said, which is why HB 181 is concerning to her.
“It’s quite a leap from going to say, ‘Oh, you can’t prepare anything in your kitchen or you have to be under cottage industry’ to saying, ‘Whatever you do in this kitchen is fine as long as you set up in a different area and say it’s nonregulated,’” Laine said. “We would, as a board, really have to have some consideration about how we’re going to deal with it. I really can’t answer at this time.”
In a Senate committee hearing last Friday, Scott Ericson, deputy commissioner in the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said his agency still had concerns with food safety components of the bill.
“Initially, the bill doesn’t sound like a big deal ― who could be against home consumption of homemade food? We take it to our neighbors,” he said. “When you’re taking a hot plate of food, that’s different taking it and packaging and putting it in an environment where bacteria can grow.”
Ericson continued: “This issue deserves a conversation about what this bill is really about, rather than produce and cookies. We need to have a conversation as to whether prepared and bottle food should be sold without inspection.”
Tyson Roberts, operator of Roberts Family Farm, shared the same concerns as Erickson.
“This kind of bill hinges on the phrase ‘informed consumer,’ and I’ve always struggled with that,” Roberts said. “In the fast-paced farmers market, if there’s an opportunity in those seconds with each customer to inform him that this food, that it may not be at the same safety level as other food that you’ve purchased. I’m not sure how you do that. I’m afraid that ‘informed consumer’ doesn’t become fully informed until a sickness occurs.”
Angela Dunn, epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health, spoke at the House and Senate committee hearings for HB181. On Friday, though, she still believed the bill was too broad and puts the onus on the consumer to tell what is safe food and what is not.
“The majority of foodborne illnesses tend to affect very severely our young and our elderly,” she said. “They are hospitalized and can ultimately result in death. This bill doesn’t do anything to protect them. While we can investigate it, we can’t do any control measures.”
At the conclusion of the public hearing, Sen. Brian Zehnder said although he enjoys “picking up a plate of homemade apple pie,” as a physician, he wants to refer to medical science.
“Good public policy must be guided by the best medical science in dealing with food products,” he said. “I would vote against this at this point.”
Roberts concluded the hearing saying the committee heard “a lot of scary stories” on Friday.
“The truth is, a lot of this is already happening,” he said. “If you’re buying an apple pie from someone down the road, technically, you’re not supposed to be able to do that.”