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Cottage food producers defend practices as North Dakota lawmakers offer regulatory bill

LeAnn Harner, a goat dairy farmer from Oliver County, testifies in opposition to Senate Bill 2269 during a hearing in front of the Senate Agriculture Committee on cottage foods at the state Capitol in Bismarck on Thursday, Feb. 7. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK - North Dakota lawmakers heard passionate and even tearful testimony on Thursday, Feb. 7, in opposition to a bill that would tighten the state's cottage foods law.

Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, told the Senate Agriculture Committee that Senate Bill 2269 seeks "consistency and conformity" since a rule-making process brought nothing forth after cottage food proponents clashed with the state Department of Health following 2017 legislation that expanded direct sales of mostly home baked and canned items.

"This is about providing opportunity for cottage food folks to continue doing what they're doing but understanding what the rules are," Klein said.

Cottage food proponents opposed Klein's bill as too onerous, defending their food safety practices and pointing to their extra income, interactions in sales and local sourcing as benefits.

Klein's bill would prohibit drink products and low acid canned items and would require most time- and temperature-controlled food, such as pies, to be sold frozen with labeling for safe handling and a product disclosure statement.

Julie Wagendorf, director of the state Division of Food and Lodging, walked lawmakers through the bill after her supporting testimony. She said North Dakota is one of the least restrictive states for cottage foods, but current law draws "confusion" over definitions and intent. SB2269 offers "further clarification," she said.

"Aside from Wyoming, Senate Bill 2269 offers North Dakota the fewest restrictions on unregulated cottage food products," Wagendorf said.

North Dakota Food Freedom coordinator LeAnn Harner led the opposition, arguing line-by-line in the bill and noting benefits of cottage foods, such as extra income for families and testing for business startups.

"I would ask you to just hold off regulations, hold these regulations at bay and allow the energy and enthusiasm of our cottage food producers," Harner said. "They really are trying to do the very, very best they can to put good, nutritious food on the table and provide a local, known source of the person who handled it and produced it from day one."

Abby Clyde, of Dickinson, gave emotional testimony in describing her myriad homemade goodies, which she sells to support her disabled 6-year-old daughter.

She was able to pay off years of debt and buy a communication device for her daughter with proceeds from her sales, which include kuchen, juice, juice concentrate, dry noodles and sauerkraut.

Clyde also said she has had "zero complaints" of sickness or contaminants. She includes labeling with the date she made her food items and her contact information.

The bill's labeling mandate drew criticism. Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, questioned if labeling wouldn't add value or protection for homemade goods, after Harner said the point of sale discloses all the information a buyer needs. Most sellers already provide contact labels to keep customers returning, Harner added.

Wagendorf and activist Carel Two-Eagle spoke in support of the bill, followed by nine people in opposition — most of them cottage food producers.

"I don't think this is tying anybody's hands," Klein told Harner. "I'm hoping that you don't think that there's boogeymen in the details ... because there aren't."

The Senate Agriculture Committee took no immediate action on SB2269.

"Maybe we need a couple of tweaks," Klein said.

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