A new law proposed at the Utah Legislature would drop requirements for some of the food sold by local producers to undergo safety inspections or certification. While supporters tout it as pro-free market, opponents worry it could lead to many Utahns getting sick.
The Food Freedom Act, proposed by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, exempts food producers from "state, county, or city licensing, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, and labeling requirements for the preparation, serving, use, consumption, or storage of food." It would apply only to food that is sold in-state and sold directly from the producer to the end-consumer (not to grocery stores or restaurants). It also would not apply to meat, wild game, or wild fish, but it would apply to dairy and poultry, such as chicken or turkey.
The bill was heard Friday, Feb. 5, in the House Natural Resources, Agricultural and Environment Committee. But despite his hosting a press conference on the bill one hour before the committee hearing, Roberts was conspicuously absent from the hearing itself.
"I saw Wyoming do this last year, and I thought 'Hey, that's a cool bill. That's a cool idea,'" Roberts told City Weekly before the committee hearing. "I like local agriculture and local farms, so I get into that sort of thing, being self-reliant and all those buzzwords."
Roberts says there are a lot of people in Utah who want access to uninspected food, who don't like or don't trust government regulations and safety inspections, and prefer to buy food free of those restrictions. "This gets government out of the way for those producers and those consumers," Roberts said.
The proposal has raised some red flags, however. Travis Waller, director of the regulatory services division of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food says existing laws allow Utah producers to sell produce (fruits and vegetables) without any restrictions, as long as they are not preparing or cooking the produce in any way. But things get dangerous when poultry or dairy enter the equation.
"There may be a market for [uninspected locally produced food,]" Waller says, "but there still needs to be some checks and balances in place. We're willing to work with people and help them get their products to market, but it can't just be the Wild West or people could get hurt."
Waller says there are much higher risks of foodborne illnesses when producing chicken and dairy products, pointing to the 45 cases of campylobacter food poisoning reported in 2014 linked to Ropelato Dairy in Weber County and 10 cases in 20o7 linked to the Woolsey's Dairy in Utah County.
LuAnn Adams, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture & Food, adds that existing food inspections and regulations are minimal already and include requirements such as ensuring pets are not in the area where food is prepared and correctly labeling what is in food.
The Utah Department of Health, whose representatives also spoke against the bill at the hearing, warned against consumption of products like raw milk, because without pasteurization, bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and listeria remain in the milk and could cause numerous foodborne illnesses, which can be especially serious for young children, pregnant women, the elderly, or anyone else with a weakened immune system.
Roberts disagrees that the inspections are necessary and notes that his bill has the backing of Red Acre CSA farm in Cedar City, McDowell Family Farms in Wanship, some smaller local producers and the conservative Libertas Institute. Under his bill, Roberts says, consumers would be encouraged to talk with producers about how the food was produced. He does admit that if his bill were to become law and safety inspections were removed, there's nothing to prevent producers from lying to customers about the process. "That's where the market is a beautiful thing in my opinion," says Roberts. "Why would a producer sell [tainted] food because his interest is to make sure his customers are healthy. So yes, you could get sick. There's always going to be bad players in the market—in any market. But, by-and-large, [producers'] incentive is to make sure their customers are healthy and happy."
Waller agrees that the majority of food producers would do their best to make sure their customers never got sick. However, he says, it's not just about the consumers who choose to take the risk and purchase uninspected foods, because many foodborne viruses are communicable and a family who gets sick could spread infections to others who did not eat the uninspected food.
That's precisely what makes the Utah Farm Bureau Federation nervous. Sterling Brown, the UFBF's vice president of public policy, says his organization opposes the bill because if Utahns become worried about the safety of local food, they might stop buying from all local producers, and not just those who are selling the uninspected food. "Consumer confidence is imperative to a sustainable, viable, growing agriculture in Utah," Brown says. "There has to be some level of inspections on our food, to ensure that when it reaches our kitchen counters, it's a safe product."
Brown says that he doesn't buy the idea that just because a customer is told that the raw chicken or milk they are buying wasn't inspected, that means the customer is well-informed. "Consumers are gullible; we just buy it and eat it. Just as I would think you would support some level of inspection on a house before you buy it to make sure it was built correctly, there needs to be some level of minimum inspection on our food."
Carl Ingwell, the head of Clean Air Now, disagrees and says he supports the bill because "this is the trend in food today— people want to have their food go through as few steps as possible between the producer and their table." While Ingwell acknowledges the difference between heavily processed foods and safety inspections, he likens Roberts' bill the national trend of moving away from processed foods produced by multinational food corporations. "Anything we can do to get people closer to the producers, the better," Ingwell says. "I think this could help push more people to buy locally."
Nick Como is director of communication & marketing for The Downtown Alliance, which runs the Downtown Farmers Market. He says the bill won't impact their market either way, because rules are already in place that forbid selling food products like poultry and dairy that haven't been through safety inspections. So even if HB144 were to become law, uninspected poultry and dairy wouldn't be turning up at the Downtown Farmers Market, which is the state's largest farmers market. However, the uninspected food could show up at other farmers markets, at roadside stands, and in direct sales from farms.
Several members of the committee speculated that Roberts not showing up for his bill was just "political gamesmanship" and pledged that they would not vote in favor of the bill this year but would demand that it be brought back next year if Roberts wants to move forward. The bill was held in committee without a vote.
Roberts did not respond to repeated requests for comment following the Feb. 5 hearing.