A Flathead City-County Board of Health meeting on April 17 had a not-so-sweet outcome for one Kalispell beekeeper.
Arvon Fielding of Never Give Up Apiary in Kalispell has been told he can no longer sell his bees’ raw honey at local farmers markets because of a new interpretation of state code by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, which requires him to obtain a retail food license. In March, Fielding was denied a license after county health inspectors visited his facility and deemed it inadequate.
Fielding appealed and said he doesn’t even need a retail food license because, in his opinion, raw honey is not a food and he is already registered with the Department of Agriculture.
“I don’t sell food at the farmers markets, I sell honey!” Fielding said, during a tense board of health meeting. “Honey is honey!”
The Flathead City-County Health Department, which enforces the state code locally, informed Fielding of the change earlier this year.
According to county health officer Joe Russell, unlicensed apiaries could sell raw honey at farmers markets for a number of years because Health and Human Services staff had misinterpreted state law. According to Montana Code Annotated 50-50-202, a farmer or gardener does not need a license to sell their product at a famers market as long as it’s “raw and unprocessed.”
Last year, Health and Human Services clarified its stance on the law and decided that, since producers heat and bottle their product, honey is processed.
According to emails between the county health board and the state health department, there is no other way to interpret the law. Legislators could change the law during the next legislative session in 2015. The Health and Human Services Department and Department of Agriculture are helping craft a new “Cottage Food Law” that would allow raw honey to be sold without a license as it has been in the past.
Meanwhile, Fielding applied for a retail food license and in March county inspectors visited the shop where he bottles honey. According to Environmental Health Services, numerous violations at the facility prevented him from getting a food license, including gasoline being stored above the honey drums and cats walking through the processing area. Fielding disagreed with the findings and claimed the facility and the bottles were clean. On April 3, he appealed the decision.
On April 17, Fielding appeared before the board of health to make the case that he did not need a license. During testimony, Fielding wielded a bottle of raw honey and a jar of dead bees. Two local Republican state lawmakers, Rep. Jerry O’Neil and Sen. Dee Brown, also spoke out in support of Fielding’s appeal. Brown accused “bureaucrats” at Health and Human Services of overstepping their bounds.
“These are government workers sitting in Helena making up rules and until we in the Legislature change the laws, they’ll keep doing that,” Brown said. “Let’s not create a hornet’s nest here. Let’s let the bees do their thing and make honey and let people sell it.”
“This might be a small deal to some people, but if people can’t sell raw honey that’s a serious concern for freedom,” O’Neil said.
After some discussion, the six-person board of health voted four to two to deny Fielding’s appeal, believing it could not supersede the state department’s interpretation of the law. The board did say it would support any efforts in the Legislature to change the law to allow beekeepers to sell raw honey.
Fielding was frustrated with the outcome.
“They know nothing about honey!” he said. “I’m proud of my product and I don’t like it when people who don’t know what they’re talking about tell me what to do.”
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