When do dark kitchens need the sanitizing light of local consumer safety oversight?

Never, according to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, Republican, and Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson. This is the clear message sent to the public when Gianforte signed Hertz’s myopicaly negligent homemade food bill into law May 2 (Senate Bill 202). It’s a throwback not to 1923, but 1823 when consumer safety regulations were almost nonexistent at any government level throughout the United States.

The outcome for consumers will likely be additional preventable illnesses and possibly death. I already investigated and documented one outbreak with my colleagues. We attributed the cause to the previous version of this law. There will be more, but it’s likely we might never know of them, unless they are reported.

The 2023 version of this law prohibits operators of local farmers markets from establishing their own rules to protect consumers. Prior to May 2, wise operators of farmers markets allowed safer homemade canned foods and disallowed others that might be sources for botulism. This is the disease caused by the most potent neurotoxin known to humans. Food botulinum toxin is too often found in improperly canned homemade foods that are low in acidity and high in moisture content, such as most vegetables and fruits. 

The dark kitchen law welcomes any and all such homemade foods, no questions asked. It is absent any and all local authority, reasonability or science, based solely on a nonsensical and unreasonable antigovernment agenda. It concentrates authority to the state legislature. 

But Gianforte and Hertz are not the ultimate source of the dark kitchen law, legally titled the “Montana Local Food Choice Act.” The dark kitchen law has 2011 origins, under a “local” marketing gimmick, wrapped in a “food freedom” flag ruse, perpetuated by the libertarian political advocacy group, “Americans for Prosperity” (AFP). The conservative group AFP was founded in 2004 and funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The antigovernment movement is an extremist response to the federal “Food Safety and Modernization Act,” signed into national law by President Barack Obama on Jan. 4, 2011. After its enactment, many Rocky Mountain states have been throwing a tantrum, in an effort to drag consumers back into the dark.   

And Gianforte used to cheer local input. At least, that’s what he said in a May 24, 2017, video published by Guardian News and Media when Gianforte was a congressional candidate. 

He said: “Well, I, think that, um, one of the problems with the way these monuments were established was it did not include local input. There are certainly monuments we should have, and others have been designated without local input. And I just don’t think Montanans want bureaucrats in Washington telling us how to live our lives. (The Guardian video May 24, 2017 at 8:00 – 8:33).”

But like the dark kitchen law, Gianforte is also wrong about designation of national monuments. The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana was created by proclamation on Jan. 17, 2001, by President Bill Clinton for land already owned and managed by the federal government, but only after a year of massive public input from locals and non-locals on the issue. 

The only significant link between these two separate subjects of local dark kitchens and national monuments is Republican extremist responses to presidential actions, implemented by Democrats Clinton and Obama. 

If only Gianforte, and his political and administrative minions, recognized the fact that the dark kitchen law is arguably in violation of Montana’s Constitution. It fails to separate the subjects of federal jurisdictional authority from state and local jurisdictional authority, regarding both food ingredients and products. 

Gianforte and Hertz seem to believe that people are like mushrooms: better to keep them fed waste and in the dark. 

About the Author: Jeff Havens is former commercial food lead for the Montana Food and Consumer Safety Section with the Department of Public Health and Human Services where he worked for more than a decade. He has a pending complaint against the state with the Montana Human Rights Bureau.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News,click here)