Maine has become the first state in the nation to enact a “food sovereignty” law allowing local communities to exempt locally grown and -sold foods from some state regulations.
The Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage in June, permits local ordinances to bypass state rules to allow locally produced food to be sold directly to consumers within municipalities without being licensed or inspected by the state. The act does not apply to food sold or processed outside of its community of origin.
Food sovereignty advocates blame costly state and federal laws for causing a rapid decline in small and medium-scale farms over the past few decades, as well as an aging farmer population.
Local Ordinances Rescued
Groups such as Local Food RULES and Food for Maine’s Future have spent more than a decade helping Maine communities implement local self-governance ordinances. Twenty communities have adopted ordinances allowing locally grown food to be sold without requiring state licensing or inspections. Maine’s Department of Agriculture had sent letters disputing the local ordinances’ validity.
The food sovereignty effort picked up steam in 2011 when the state government sued farmer Dan Brown for selling raw milk at his farm stand without the proper licensing and labeling, in violation of state law. An article on the webpage of WhyHunger, an anti-hunger and poverty advocacy group, said such regulations were designed for larger agribusiness operations and create unreasonable barriers for beginning farmers. Compliance would cost Brown tens of thousands of dollars, the article stated.
Local Agriculture Triumphs
Maine’s new law marks the first time local governments have been allowed to override state food regulations and exempt producers in communities with food sovereignty laws from state licensing, labeling requirements, and inspections of food produced, sold, and consumed locally. Locally grown food can be sold on-site or at local farmers’ markets or grocery stores.
Under the new law, local farmers in the 20 Maine municipalities with existing food sovereignty ordinances are safe from state fines or penalties. Farmers in additional cities and towns adopting such local control ordinances in the future will similarly be exempt from state licensing, labeling, and inspections if the food they produce is sold locally.
Groups that pushed for the new law applauded its passage.
Betsy Garrold, president of Food for Maine’s Future, wrote in a blog post on June 19 she had tears of joy running down her face upon hearing LePage had signed the new law.
“This has been a six-year struggle against the corporate food monopolies to protect and enhance the traditional food-ways in our state,” she wrote.
Opponents of the law, including large dairy and grocery lobbies, said usurping state regulations could increase food safety risk, though the new law makes it clear locally produced food still has to adhere to all applicable state and federal health and safety regulations.
Ending ‘Pointless Government Interference’
In an interview with the Maine Sun-Journal, bill sponsor state Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Allagash) said the bipartisan law gives small farmers a chance to compete with corporate producers.
“This is going to allow small producers to become more engaged in the market and free enterprise,” Jackson said.
Matthew Gagnon, CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, says the law essentially gets government off the backs of small farmers, allowing them to manage their facilities and products free of unnecessary government interference.
“We are very rural, and we have a lot of small producers who basically want to be left alone, and piling needless regulations on them in the name of protecting public health and safety is not something that resonates around here,” Gagnon said. “If you want to visit a small farm that has their own milk and you want to try some while you are there, you should be able to be free of a government regulator shutting the place down.”
Gagnon said momentum for food sovereignty laws is growing nationwide.
“I think you’ll see a lot more of these laws around the country,” said Gagnon.
Similar but more limited “food freedom” laws are already on the books in Colorado, North Dakota, and Wyoming, allowing on-site direct-to-consumer sales of select agricultural products. A food sovereignty bill was stopped in committee in Montana earlier this year, and another is under consideration in California.
On the national level, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), a small-scale cattle rancher, reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act, with bipartisan support. The measure would allow states to set their own livestock slaughtering and processing regulations for in-state sales.
At present, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires all meat handling take place at federally inspected facilities. Small farmers say this regulation limits their options, especially with growing demand for free-range meat, and makes it expensive for small producers to compete with large corporate agribusinesses.
Bloomberg reported in May just four companies control approximately 85 percent of U.S. beef sales, with pork and chicken markets also dominated by large corporations that want to keep it that way, Massie says.
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) is a cosponsor of the PRIME Act. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Angus King (I-ME) have introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
“Despite consumers’ desire to know where their food comes from, federal inspection requirements make it difficult for them to purchase food from local farmers they know and trust,” Massie said in a statement. “These onerous federal rules also make it more difficult for small farms and ranches to succeed financially. It is time to open our markets to small farms and producers and give consumers the freedom to choose.”