Lonnie Thompson, of Mandan, said the state's new cottage food rules are confusing while speaking during a public comment hearing at the state Department of Health in Bismarck on Wednesday.

Reasonable rules are needed to govern the production and sales of cottage foods. The Tribune editorial board realizes the rules will require more work by vendors, but it’s for the safety of the consumer.

While most vendors of uninspected home-baked and canned foods use extraordinary care in producing their products, it takes just one careless person to create health problems. The North Dakota Health Department has developed proposed rules to safeguard the public. A public comment period recently ended, with the department receiving 54 responses. The majority of the commenters oppose the proposed rules.

The 2019 Legislature defeated a bill intended to clarify legal definitions involving cottage foods. The proposed rules mirror what was in the defeated legislation. The Health Department will respond to the comments and send the responses and comments to the attorney general’s office, which will review the legality of the proposed rules. The rules then go to the State Health Council, which is the governing body of the Health Department. Finally, the rules go to the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee for review.

So there are a number of steps in the process for opponents to be heard. The intent of the rules should be to provide safety with the least amount of intrusion. Unfortunately, vendors and the Health Department haven’t been able to agree.

During the 2019 Legislature, there was heated testimony and debate over rules for a 2017 law that expanded direct-to-consumer sales of cottage foods. The Legislature couldn’t decide, so the Health Department has offered proposed rules.

In the past, home-produced goods were largely unregulated and sold at craft shows, farmers markets and other events. Society has become more health-conscious, and many consumers are looking for labels that explain content and offer storage requirements.

There also are concerns about packaging of items, transport of frozen items and low-acid canned items like green beans.

We don’t agree with commenters who argue cottage food producers should just be left alone. Some vendors travel throughout the year to a variety of events, and their volume of sales can be high. The public needs some kind of assurance the items are being handled properly.

The Institute for Justice, a law firm, has asked the Health Department to withdraw the rules. The firm cites statutory contradictions, legal precedent and lawsuits in other states for the request.

Hopefully, a set of rules acceptable to most people can be developed as the attorney general, State Health Council and the legislative committee reviews the proposal. Everyone will be best served by rules that protect the public’s safety and don’t impede vendors’ efforts to produce cottage foods.

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