by Marion Nestle
Feb 20 2010

Wyoming’s idea of “food freedom:” liberty or safety hazard?

The Wyoming House of Representatives, in its infinite wisdom, has introduced House Bill 54, the Food Freedom Act, ostensibly to “allow for traditional community social events involving the sale and consumption of home made foods and to encourage the expansion and accessibility of farmers’ markets, roadside stands, ranch, farm and home based sales and producer to end consumer agricultural sales by:

  • Promoting the purchase and consumption of fresh and local agricultural products
  • Enhancing the agricultural economy
  • Encouraging agri-tourism opportunities in Wyoming
  • Providing Wyoming citizens with unimpeded access to healthy food from known sources
  • Encouraging the expansion and accessibility of farmers’ markets, roadside stands, ranch and farm based sales and direct producer to end consumer agricultural sales.”

Doesn’t this sound great?

It might, except that the Act exempts from licensing everyone who sells foods directly to consumers at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, or at home.

Bill Marler, the Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food poisonings, thinks the law should be retitled, “The Bill Marler Full Employment Act.”

Let’s hope the Wyoming legislature rethinks this bill.  My endlessly stated opinion: Everyone who produces food, even small food producers, should be required to produce food that is safe.

  • Jonny

    I agree that small food producers should be required to produce safe food. There are serious issues with bacteria and pathogens that could enter into the food supply through poor food handling and lack of oversight?

    But is this bill actually that bad? I have been a licensed small food processor for the 10 years and really the only effect that the license has had on my food handling is increased cost because of unnecessary regulations. There is very little oversight on small companies producing food and that is normally a once a year inspection that can differ drastically depending on who the inspector is. The increased chance of food poisoning or contamination did not decrease once i was producing food in a licensed facility it only increased my cost of equipment.

    I’m very much for better regulation of food safety but this bill doesn’t change much about the food safety system it only decreases some of the barriers that exist to small producers to enter the market. I think that there should be mandatory classes and increased awareness for each producer but to argue that the current system provides any better food safety for the consumer is not true.

  • Anthro

    I agree with you, Marion–and I agree with you, Jonny.

    This is a conundrum, ideally solved through education, rather than regulation, but that would be difficult to guarantee. There are no guarantees anyway, however, so perhaps we have to accept that nothing is going to be 100 per cent “safe”.

    When I lived in Oregon, it had a law that allowed the sale of food prepared in a home kitchen as long as the kitchen has been inspected. I never heard of this causing illness, but can’t be sure. It sure made it easier to produce something salable on a small scale.

    Perhaps a rigorous course for small producers with a tough exam and reasonable/doable regulation or separate regulations to deal with economies of scale?

  • DennisP

    “Everyone who produces food, even small food producers, should be required to produce food that is safe” is a wonderful ideal, but also has a somewhat pie-in-the-sky quality. Food has never been produced that is perfectly safe – it just is not possible. But the real rub is in how the rules and reg’s are written and what is required in the legislation.

    Do the lawmakers really understand the different circumstances of large, medium and small food processors? Do they distinguish between industrial, on-farm, and home-in-kitchen producers? Do they know what different procedures can be used to secure food safety? How do you write the regulations? What agendas will the regulatory agencies have? And the actual inspectors – each of them will differ in their competency, personality, and whether they are real sticklers or allow some reasonable slack in enforcement? And of course Marion would probably want them to be sticklers while I might prefer a little more common-sense enforcement.

    I taught college economics for a bunch of years and always spoke out on behalf of government intervention. But lately I’ve become a lot more dubious, realizing more fully the difficulties between the ideal and the reality of regulation.

  • This is, and always has been the law in Vermont.
    No one EVER has reported an incident of a problem with locally or home grown foods!
    Furthermore, if a problem ever did occur, i could never become a nationwide health problem, like corporate factory beef does often.

  • The impact of requiring licensing and supposed inspections thus far has only been a “license to not care”. So far Only “licensed” facilities have ever put tainted foods onto the US market!
    When someone who makes or produces a food product sells it directly to members of their community, you know darn well they are going to take food quality and safety seriously, there is no one else to take the blame!
    Transparency is the key to food safety and a way to reduce any crime.

  • Cassie

    Interesting. I have no idea if the people I buy from at Farmer’s Markets are licensed or not. I always just assumed that if someone was going to go to the trouble of selling food at a Farmer’s Market, they were the kind of people who cared about food and other people. I mean, it’s not like those people are in it for the money!

  • Joanne

    I just checked the posted regulations for our Beaverton, Oregon, farmer’s market. For fresh fruits and vegetables, there are no licensing requirements. People selling prepared foods must have prepared it in licensed facilities. There are specific licensing rules for meat, poultry, seafood, and other categories, as well as for food prepared at the market.

    Farmer’s markets flourish in our area, so this kind of regulation does not seem to local producers and local markets. At the same time, it is the big producers that are more of a problem. When the spinach scare hit, I never stopped eating spinach. It obviously wasn’t the local produce that was the problem.

  • Jennifer

    The thing is, if you buy your products directly from the producer, and you happen to get sick, you can go directly back to them to address the issue. If you purchase something at a national chain, then who do you hold accountable? The store, the transportation company, the producer? There are too many people with their hands on the products.

    Like Chateau said, it can’t become a national problem if it’s only sold locally. I feel QUITE safe purchasing my products from a local producer that will sell it to me, look me in the eye, and shake my hand, regardless of whether or not they are licensed and inspected. In fact, I would rather NOT have to force my farmer to send their cattle off to a “safe” USDA facility where they are no longer in control of the process.

    I really worry that too much regulation and the cost of implementation will be worse for the small farmer rather than make the public more safe. It could even put the consumers more at risk if we lose those small operations and are forced to purchase from big agricultural operations.

    No thank you, I’ll just take my chances with the farmer’s I get to talk to.

  • Melissa

    Is there any proof that the registration and once a year inspection system makes food safer? HACCP has been proven, but these current systems are pretty far from that and furthermore often have stipulations that are arbitrary and burdensome. Gov needs to work harder to scale systems and make them both logical and appropriate.

    People consume food prepared in uninspected unregulated facilities all the time…they are called kitchens.

  • I see nothing wrong with requiring a small food producer to get a food handlers card. That’s education that virtually all small producers would welcome. As Chateau says, the small producers want their food to be safe, otherwise they could be wiped out. Licensing their facilities, however, is a step too far. All that does is raise the barrier to entry without substantially (or even minimally) improving food safety. The more small producers we have supplying us, the public, the less we have to depend on Big Food to supply us.

  • fuzzy

    Most big corporations use their lobbyists to cut out the “little guy” whenever there is legislation proposed for more regulations, licensing, etc. Government bureaucracies neither understand nor care how small (and i mean SMALL) companies (local farmers, local value added products home kitchen people, etc) work. And they don’t sympathize either.

    There are many examples of this, not the least of which is “home distilling”. Thre is No such thing as home distilling, you have to build a multi-million dollar facility that meets all the requirements. And this isn’t just for drinkable alcohol, it is for anything that requires distilling. Which is silly in a world where equipment from labs to do it safely and with great skill are cheaper and easier to use than ever before.

    Canning and preserving methods today are more reliable and safer than ever before, but almost every year some additional impediment to home canners selling their stuff at the local farmers market gets added in.

    Local farmers can’t process their own meat under reasonable conditions, or use their own sausage recipe on meat they have slaughtered elsewhere, or cure their own bacon. I see this locally, and it is well documented in some recent books I’m sure most of us here are aware of as well.

    Big corporations use licensing and regulations to keep out the little folk, in all walks of life, not just in home food products.

  • Pingback: Wyoming’s “Food Freedom Act” Raises Food Safety Concerns | Earth Eats - Indiana Public Media()

  • Liam

    The MT bill sounds sensible to me. Marion’s position does not. Marion’s position is the Full Employment Act for Food Bureaucrats and Big Industrial Food, with little in the way of practical benefit for consumers.

  • I really don’t have a problem with this bill and, in fact, wish it would be enacted everywhere. I buy local foods, know the farmers, egg producers, and hog raisers, and let me tell you, they aren’t going to take a chance on unsafe food because then they won’t have any customers! And anyway–our processed food from far away is “safe”?? Yeah, right.

  • fivewordsandapunctuation.

    I think that the general consensus here is that if you are dealing with someone on a local, personal level then it is inappropriate for the government to be sticking their noses in your business. When you are buying from someone who takes the time to personally make and grow every bit of what they are selling to you and are held personally responsible if that product is sub-par, does it not follow logically that their product would be more carefully produced than a larger, less personal plant that has to to adhere to government standards?