For centuries, it’s been a way of life in rural Maine: If you needed some vegetables or a chicken for a Sunday stew, all you had to do was pay a visit to your local farmer. Money might be exchanged. Or a service might be bartered. There might even be a handshake.
But this way of doing business is increasingly under threat from over-regulation and Big Agriculture say advocates of a new law taking effect today called The Maine Food Sovereignty Act, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. Two other states, Wyoming and North Dakota, have enacted food sovereignty legislation, but Maine is the first state to officially recognize municipalities’ rights to enact their own local food ordinances.
“I think Maine is leading the way,” said State Senator Troy Jackson, the Maine Senate Democratic leader and original sponsor of the bill. “I think we’re really the first state to empower our local municipalities this way.”
In late October, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) expressed concern about the food safety elements of the law and threatened to shut down all “food sovereign” slaughterhouses in the state. Then, in a special legislative session on October 23, lawmakers added some clarification: When it comes to meat and poultry inspections, all farmers, regardless of where they conduct business in the state, must follow federal and state meat and poultry regulations. Moreover, they must adhere to all food safety guidelines when conducting third-party business, such as wholesale sales.
Maine’s push for food sovereignty began in 2011 when the state agriculture department sued a Blue Hill dairy farmer for selling raw milk without a license, prompting a surge of support for a more deregulated local food system. “We are all Farmer Brown,” some supporters had declared, referring to farmer Dan Brown, whose Gravelwood Farm was at the center of the lawsuit.
Though Brown’s quest to sell raw milk without state licensing or inspections was rejected by the Maine Supreme Court in 2014, the case spurred a number of Maine communities to defiantly declare themselves “food sovereign,” allowing all farmer-to-consumer sales free from the watchful eye of either the federal or state government. These include private transactions as well as those at farmers’ markets, farm stands, and potluck dinners. To date, about 20 Maine towns have enacted similar food-sovereignty regulations and at least 20 more are considering them.
When the legislature in June passed the food freedom law, it noted that the law was not declaring all local food sales free of any state or federal regulation, but that it recognized the right of local municipalities to establish their own food ordinances. The thrust, according to Jackson and other supporters, was to support the local food economy and encourage local food sales.
But before Governor Paul LePage’s signature was even dry on the law, a new issue cropped up not about raw milk, but about meat and poultry processing. According to LePage, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue informed the state that if the new food sovereignty law was not clarified to indicate how state meat-inspection programs would remain “at least equal to” federal rules, the USDA would seize control of the state’s meat and poultry operations. LePage promptly called a special legislative session to address the matter.
At an October 20 public hearing, meat farmers expressed concern about their livelihoods should the USDA follow through on its threat. Steven Burger, co-owner of Winter Hill Farm, a small dairy farm in Freeport, Maine, told lawmakers that he has 22 animals scheduled for harvest between now and the end of the year. “Our business relies on state meat inspection, and would face an existential threat without its existence,” he said.
Burger also urged lawmakers to exempt dairy products such as raw milk and cheese from the food sovereignty act. He said his products are routinely inspected by the state, which he said does an excellent job ensuring food safety, and should continue doing so.
“The last thing that Maine’s burgeoning cheese-making community needs is a serious food-related illness caused by unregulated, uninspected product,” Burger said.
Burger’s sentiments were echoed by the Maine Farm Bureau, the Maine Aquaculture Association, the Maine Cheese Guild, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and other farm groups who said food safety standards should remain in place for not just meat and poultry, but also for many so-called “high-risk” products, from apple cider to seafood to processed blueberries.
Senator Jackson says he’s “pretty sure” the revised food sovereignty law will hold up to further federal scrutiny regarding food safety standards and processes. But, he added, “you never know what the federal government is going to do.”