A measure in Helena would give Montanans more freedom to buy food from neighboring farmers and ranchers, supporters say, but the bill is raising concerns among food-safety experts.

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, the sponsor of Senate Bill 199, owns a grocery store and said there’s demand for local products like raw milk and meat that he can’t provide.

This legislation would allow that.

Mallory Scharf, public health policy specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department, countered it cuts out regulators almost completely.

“The very narrow opportunity for involvement with the Health Department regulators would be if a food-borne illness was potentially traced back to food produced out of the home,” Scharf explained. “And that’s really a reactive way to respond to food safety, you know, after someone is already sick.”

A so-called “cottage food law” enacted in 2015 allows Montanans to sell food products made in their homes directly to customers, but it’s designed for foods that are not likely to spread food-borne illnesses, like jams, breads and cereals.

Under that law, folks must register with their local health agency.

Scharf noted about 400 permitted operators have registered more than 6,500 products.

At a public hearing in February, many of the bill’s supporters expressed health concerns about milk bought at the store, saying raw or unpasteurized milk is more pure, and therefore healthier.

But Scharf doesn’t believe the bill sets up a safe path to sell raw milk, since it doesn’t require any regulation, such as tracking or labeling.

“It’s just more likely than pasteurized milk to contain pathogens that are going to cause illness, and it’s just been a big public-health success to pasteurize milk,” Scharf argued. “And reversing that does not seem like good policy for public health.”

Federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also noted the dangers of raw milk and bacteria linked to food-borne illnesses.

The bill passed out of the Senate this week, and has been referred to the House Human Services Committee.

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