Local food growers laud food safety bill's signing

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutney

For a small group of Montanans, the best news about the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law Tuesday was what wasn't in it.

Small-scale food producers who market locally grown, locally sold food were to be subject to the same food-tracking requirements as Campbell's, Kraft and large food companies.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed the $1.4 billion overhaul of the nation's food safety system.

The the law emphasizes prevention to help stop deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness before they occur, instead of reacting after consumers become ill. It calls for increasing government inspections at food processing facilities and, for the first time, gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to order the recall of unsafe foods.

The local food guys leaned on Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for an exemption, arguing that the regulations would drive them out of business. The bill signed by President Barack Obama empowers the Food and Drug Administration to impose mandatory recalls in cases of food poisoning. It also ramps up inspection and tracking requirements.

“The thing that was bad about it originally was they made no classifications,” said Perry McNeese, manager of Good Earth Market in Billings. “They put Kraft Foods and Dick Espenscheid together.”

Espenscheid is a local farmer who provides everything from pork to vegetables to Good Earth Market.

Tester's amendment exempted farms and processors selling the majority of their food to consumers, grocers and restaurants within 275 miles of where it was grown, provided their annual sales were less than $500,000. Local and state governments will still regulate local food producers, and the Food and Drug Administration can intervene on a case-by-case basis if local regulations prove insufficient.

“I think its role is absolutely positive,” Tester said Tuesday of the local-food movement. “It helps connect consumers with farmers. It's helping create an economy in areas that can always use more jobs.”

The next big challenge for Montanans trying to sell their products locally will be distribution, McNeese said. Many of the 91 vendors selling local food to Good Earth Market are capable of producing more food but are unable to get larger supplies to market.

There are a couple of distribution developments in the state that could change that. The Western Montana Growers Cooperative in Missoula warehouses and distributes its members' food, including milk delivered to Billings.

McNeese said a Bozeman company, Quality Foods Distribution, is developing a broader delivery service, which may include producers in central and southeast Montana, also.

A third group, the Western Sustainability Exchange in Livingston, is developing a local distribution system for Montana beef, McNeese said.

The local-food movement is a very small part of agriculture, but producers like Dena Hoff of Glendive said there is potential for growth. Hoff said that when she moved to Glendive 30 years ago, there were three ranches providing beef to the local grocery store, a local dairy, cheese factory and more local produce.

“People like local food,” Hoff said. “I think when people grow their own food, it tastes better for some reason.”

Tester is meeting with food producers over the next few weeks to discuss other development issues. He will be in Billings on Jan. 10.