Serving food at a public event, you need to have a license

I want to provide food at a public event - Do I need to have a license?

The short answer is YES.  And the long answer is:

Food is a very important part of most of our community festivities and by following basic food safety guidelines and common sense, it can be done successfully and profitably.

The very first step, prior to any food service event is to obtain the proper licensure as required by State law.  A food service establishment is defined as a place where food or drink is prepared, served, or provided to the public at retail, with or without charge. The term “food service establishment’ does not include vendors of prepackaged, nonperishable foods in their unbroken, original container such as pop or candy bars,  or private organizations serving food only to its members.

There is the requirement for a license through the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) for all food service establishments except: 

1 – A license is not required to operate an establishment if it is operated by a nonprofit organization or a period of less than 14 days in a 1 calendar year.  A “nonprofit organization” means any organization qualifying as a tax-exempt organization under 26 U.S.C. 501 and this food event must be operated in compliance with the remaining laws and rules and prior to each operation shall register with the local sanitarian on forms provided by the department.

2 – A license is not required for a gardener, farm owner, or farm operator who sells raw and unprocessed farm products at a farmer’s market nor is a license required of a person selling baked goods or preserves at a farmer’s market.

A farmer’s market is defined as a farm premises, a roadside stand owned and operated by a farmer, or an organized market authorized by the appropriate municipal or county authority.

A farmer’s market that is an organized market authorized by a municipal or county authority shall keep records of all vendors and products that are offered for sale.  It is important for vendors to remember the definitions in 50-50-102 MCA.

“Raw and unprocessed farm products” means fruits, vegetables, and grains sold at a farmer’s market in their natural state that are not packaged or labeled and are not: cooked; canned; preserved, except for drying; combined with other food products; or peeled, diced, cut, blanched, or otherwise subjected to value-adding procedures.

“Baked goods” means breads, cakes, candies, cookies, pastries, and pies that are not potentially hazardous foods. “Preserves” means processed fruit or berry jams, jellies, compotes, fruit butters, marmalades, chutneys, fruit aspics, fruit syrups, or similar products that have a hydrogen ion concentration (pH) of 4.6 or below when measured at 24 degrees C (75 degrees F) and that are aseptically processed, packaged, and sealed.

Potentially hazardous foods are those that are capable of supporting the growth of microorganism such as meats, dairy, cream-filled pastries, cooked vegetables and sliced melons.  Vendors wanting to sell items other than those in the above would be required to have the appropriate license and approved equipment.

A farmer’s market may be the answer to some community festivities if someone is willing to be responsible for proper operation of the market.  This would entail getting the appropriate authorization, educating vendors and only allowing appropriate food items to be offered for sale, along with keeping the required records.

With all of our food vendors, from our large restaurants to the 4H group grilling hamburgers at the park, we must keep the following five risk factors in mind:  Food must come from an approved source (this includes potable water), proper temperatures must be maintained, good personal hygiene is critical, all surfaces must be kept clean, and cross contamination must be prevented.

Therefore, if your organization is a non-profit group and you want to prepare food for a public event you will need to apply for a Non-Profit Exempt license from the County Sanitarian’s office.

I will review the proposed menu along with the location and give approval as long as the five risk factors have been taken into account and there will be minimal risk to the folks consuming the food.  All foods need to be prepared on-site or at an approved location.

I have allowed baked goods to be prepared in home kitchens as long as they are not potentially hazardous and depending on the location, pre-packaged.  There is no charge for the Non-Profit Exempt license.  All other retail food service licenses are either $85 for two or fewer people or $115 for more than two people working at one time.

When communities have events and want to invite many food vendors to participate they need to keep in mind licensure requirements for these vendors.

A person/group can apply for a temporary food service license.

This is the type of license vendors commonly get to provide food at fairs or other short term events.  This license allows them to operate up to 14 consecutive days in conjunction with one event.  A few of the food establishment rules can be more flexible as long as no health hazards will result.

A mobile food service licensed in this state can usually travel across county lines if it meets all the rules and is fully contained.  There are some licensed mobiles that have restrictions on their use or a limit on how far they can travel from their base of operation.  An example of this would be a mobile that is not fully contained and needs to report to an approved commissary for cleaning and food storage.  It is very important for the event organizers to get this information prior to an event.

A catering license allows food to be prepared at a licensed establishment and then transported to the serving location.

Several of our existing food service establishments have a catering endorsement on their license.  A licensed establishment can only prepare and serve food in their approved facility unless they have this catering endorsement.

When these events are being planned it is also important to include the local jurisdiction (i.e. City) as it may have additional licensing or registration requirements for food vendors.

This was a brief summary of the laws and rules and I encourage you to get a complete copy of 50-Chapter 50 MCA and ARM 37.110.Subchapter 2 for the entire wording.

These are available on the internet or my office in either the Pondera or Teton County courthouses. Do not hesitate to contact me with any questions you might have and I do look forward to attending our upcoming community celebrations and seasonal events. 

Editor’s note: This article was written and submitted by Corrine Rose. Her contact information is: Corrine Rose, Pondera and Teton County Sanitarian, 466-2150, 271-4036, 750-8407 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .