By Paul Chartrand
As we look forward to another Common Ground Country Fair, some Mainers can celebrate something more this year. A new “food sovereignty law” was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. LePage. Officially referred to as The Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, it allows local food production ordinances to bypass state rules for foods produced and sold direct to consumers within the municipality. The state law would not protect food sold or processed outside a community, and that community must first pass a similar local ordinance to protect and/or regulate its local food producers.
Twenty Maine communities have passed such ordinances. Rockland City Council passed a unanimous resolution in support of the Maine law in 2017. Rockland did not pass an ordinance to exempt local food producers from state ordinances. Our Resolution states that customers buying food for home consumption may enter into private agreements with local producers. These producers would only be exempt from Rockland inspections or license requirements as long as the private agreements are in effect.
Supporters of this concept argue that it allows small food producers, such as a local dairy or cheese maker, to sell food within their community without meeting complex and expensive state inspection and labeling requirements. They argue that such restrictive controls favor large producers who often write the rules and can afford the necessary compliance. A local producer may want to only sell small amounts of their food to friends and neighbors, or at a local farmers market, without starting a full time operation. Such a simple, friendly food system sustained Maine for generations, and has only recently begun to be regulated and controlled by state departments.
Opponents of food sovereignty worry that a lack of regulation may increase food safety risks, although the Maine law still requires local foods to adhere to applicable state and federal safety requirements. Safety is still theoretically required, but regular licensing and inspection would not occur.
Currently Maine Dept. of Agriculture inspects and regulates meat and poultry producers and processors, as authorized by USDA. The USDA reacted quickly to the new Maine law; it will take over state meat inspections here if the law remains as passed. They require that all meat sold in the US be inspected to assure a USDA minimum safety level. Maine has performed these inspections for years with USDA guidance and financial support. If the new Maine law exempts local meat producers from inspection, USDA will step in and take over meat inspections that the State of Maine has performed.
One way to avoid this federal takeover is to rewrite Maine law to not exempt meat producers from state regulation. Gov. LePage has requested a special session this fall to do this. Even if changed, our law will still protect vegetable, fruit and dairy producers from state regulation and inspection, if towns and cities move to protect their own.
We have an active farmers market in Rockland and at least several food producers who might benefit from the Maine food sovereignty law if a local ordinance is passed. Selling a few vegetables or eggs to neighbors, who know you and trust your judgment, is a time-honored tradition here. Whether or not meat is taken out of the sovereignty effort, other small food producers deserve the freedom allowed by this Maine law. Rockland City Council will have to draft and pass a more specific food sovereignty ordinance in order to offer this protection to our local producers and their customers.
A local ordinance could set local minimum standards that are different from state rules, or simply state that foods (possibly exempting meat) produced and sold locally need not adhere to State regulation or licensing. We should follow any changes made in Augusta this fall. Once the State position is clear, Rockland has an opportunity and a responsibility to clearly support a thriving local food supply, by exempting us from unnecessary regulation.