Free to Consume 

The creepy quote of the day goes to Robert Harrington, director of the Casper-Natrona County Health Department in Wyoming, who asks, “Why is your home so safe that it doesn't need that level of oversight and control?” At issue is a proposed law that would allow home producers of various foods directly to consumers without having to get a license, spend money on expensive equipment, and submit to health inspections. As the Associated Press reports, other states are considering similar measures: Wisconsin now allows small vendors to make and sell high-acid foods like pickles without a license, and in Maine farmers with fewer than 1,000 chickens are exempt from the slaughtering regulations faced by larger enterprises.

As interest in local foods and do-it-yourself production continues to grow, conflicts like this are inevitable. Earlier this month New York health officials put the kibosh on Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Market, a regular grassroots gathering of vendors selling items such as jerky, kombucha, baked goods, and pickles. With many of them unable to afford permits and commercial kitchen rentals, the market is in limbo.

Sometimes the issue isn’t health regulations, but rather outdated laws about distribution. Oregon’s homebrewers and home winemakers learned this the hard way this week when the state’s Department of Justice told Oregon State Fair organizers that they had to cancel their annual competitions for homemade beers and wines. Although the competitions have been going on for more than 20 years, officials decided that allowing judges to taste these beverages violates provisions against serving them to the public.

The conflict between safety and free choice is at its most direct in the fight over raw, unpasteurized milk. A growing niche of consumers love the stuff, while the FDA and other regulatory agencies compare drinking it to playing Russian roulette. Those who violate the law face fines or jail time and are subject to raids on their property. Such is the case with Pennsylvania Mennonite farmer Mark Nolt, who protests that state law allows him to sell only raw milk, but not the other raw dairy products his customers demand.

Regulators’ concerns about food safety aren’t crazy, but neither are consumers’ claims that they have the right to make their own decisions about what they consume. Compromise approaches such as Wisconsin’s, which allow informed consumers to buy products explicitly labeled as produced in uninspected facilities, are a sensible way to let buyers and sellers opt-out of an excessively regulated system.

About The Author

Jacob Grier

Jacob Grier is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He authors the drink and policy weblog Liquidity Preference.
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