Security concerns headline the debate over expanding Maine’s food sovereignty laws
Supporters of legislation to change Maine’s food sovereignty law say the new language will make the state’s local food economy stronger by increasing opportunities for unlicensed home food businesses, but everyone else does not agree with the change.
Opponents, who include Maine’s food industry and farm groups, believe the amendment will unnecessarily weaken regulations aimed at preventing unsafe food from ending up in the hands of consumers.
The bill, LD 574 – An Act to Clarify Maine’s Food Sovereignty Law – is sponsored by Representative William Pluecker, D-Warren. It would allow small unlicensed food producers who live in municipalities where food sovereignty ordinances have been passed to sell their food products directly to customers across Maine. It would also extend the power to pass food sovereignty ordinances to county governments, which would extend the right to sell to the 41 unorganized territories of Maine.
Currently, Maine’s Food Sovereignty Act, enacted in 2017, gives cities in Maine the right to allow small-scale food producers to sell directly to customers at the location where the item is made. Meat and poultry products are excluded from food sovereignty ordinances.
On May 13, the Legislative Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee voted to send LD 574 to House soil, but was far from unanimous in its support. Although only a minority of committee members are in favor of his bill, Pluecker said it could still become law if it gets enough votes when the entire Legislature acts on it, likely in June.
“At present, the majority of [Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry] the committee says it shouldn’t pass, ”Pluecker said. “But we have done an incredible job growing our local food economy in Maine and food sovereignty has been key to that and I believe I will have the support of my legislation.”
More harm than good
Opponents of LD 574 – like Mark Guzzo of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, chairman of the board of the Maine Farmers’ Markets Federation – say they support a strong local food system but fear the new legislation will harm the Maine farmers market economy.
“I think it’s very helpful for an individual to be familiar with how food is produced and whether or not it was produced in a facility that complies with food safety rules or not,” Guzzo said. “By limiting the sales site to the production site, you allow consumers to better understand where and how this food is produced. [when the purveyor is unlicensed]. “
If growers or producers are allowed to sell their unlicensed items wherever they want, Guzzo said, the consumer has no way of knowing under what conditions they were prepared, as the place of preparation is no longer the place of preparation. point of sale. State licenses ensure conditions meet certain safety standards, he said. This is also where the food sovereignty law is hurting the local food movement.
Heather Donahure of Balfour Farms in Pittsfield agrees.
“I can go to their place of production and watch what’s going on, pick things up, meet the farmer or the producer and that allows me to be the inspector,” Donahue said. “When you start selling to anyone anywhere, you’ve broken that ability for the consumer to judge safety for themselves.”
This is why she opposes GL 574 and believes that the point-of-sale language for unauthorized food suppliers who operate under food sovereignty ordinances should not be changed.
For some, the movement for food sovereignty in general in Maine is more concerned with demonizing the state government as a “big brother” than promoting local food producers. Eric Rector, owner of Monroe Cheese Studio and former president of the Maine Cheese Guild, is one of them.
“When it comes to processed foods like jams or jellies, the state helps you make and deliver a safe product,” Rector said. “If you have any questions or run into problems they are there to help and they’re not the ‘big brother’, they are the best system for promoting the best food. [and] food sovereignty cancels that out. “
There are also concerns that the passage of DL 574 will harm the market economy of farmers in Maine by opening the way for unauthorized food vendors to sell in markets. According to Pluecker, farmers’ markets in Maine may require vendors to be state licensed and inspected, even in sovereign food municipalities. The language he added last week to LD 574 specifically reaffirms the right of a marketplace to set its own rules and guidelines for who can sell there.
Guzzo is not convinced that this is enough.
“Can we regulate our own markets? Of course, ”he says. “But the way we regulate is a mutual agreement between providers and there are people who, for their own sake or for various other reasons, will push on the fringes of what’s allowed.”
Expansion of traditional food systems
For proponents however, the changes that would come with the adoption of DL 574 would take Maine one step further in the preservation and expansion of traditional community food systems.
Longtime Maine food sovereignty advocate Heather Retberg, who operates Quills End Farm in Penobscot with her husband, said security concerns were unfounded. There is no data to support the argument that unregulated locally produced food products have caused foodborne illness in Maine, she said.
Retberg believes small farmers are more than capable of producing healthy food.
“I care about the people we feed [and] I care about the relationships cultivated by this very intimate form of food exchange, ”said Retberg. “I care about nourishing myself both deeply and by definition that means working hard to ensure food security every day.”
State government has no place in the local small food economy, according to LD 574 supporter Roxanne Bruce of The Tiny Farmer’s Farm in Ludlow.
“Farms should be allowed to celebrate the harvest and charge customers a fee for attending the meal without fear of legal repercussions,” Bruce said.
The cost of homologation
The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry charges an annual fee of $ 25 for a food safety license. This is a cost which, according to Rector, is affordable and several times self-financing with the services and resources provided by the state.
But proponents of food sovereignty will say that the costs of bringing kitchens and food preparation areas up to national standards required for licensing can be very costly.
The rector disagrees and points to his own creamery that he designed and built to state food safety standards for $ 1,000 in 2006. He said he did it by planning. carefully and buying used equipment when he could.
However, not everyone can afford to bet $ 1,000 on a food business, Bruce said. The ability to prepare and sell small test batches of food, she said, is one of the main benefits of living in a sovereign municipality when it comes to food.
“I don’t know if my sauce mix is going to be a hit or not,” she said. “But with food sovereignty, I can make 10 or 20 jars and test them for sale in my community before deploying the large expenditure on equipment and supplies.”
Building the local food economy
Both parties agree that the local food economy can and should continue to grow. They just don’t agree on how it should happen.
Rather than promoting food sovereignty, Rector said supporters of local food production should instead focus on encouraging young people to get into farming and giving them all the help they need to be successful. He also believes that every effort should be made to ensure that Maine’s farmland remains farmland.
At the heart of these efforts, said the Rector, he was working with the state and its food safety regulations.
But others see it differently. Food sovereignty and the proposed amendments to the law do not in any way harm the local food movement in Maine, Retberg said, if they do. She pointed out that more than 266,000 people currently live in what she calls food sovereignty zones among the 87 municipalities with food sovereignty ordinances. She anticipates that other communities will join them in moving forward.
“We need to scale up our community food production because the stronger the food economy in Maine, the less vulnerable we will be to outside influences beyond our control,” said Retberg. “More and more people are recognizing that our food crime and our food sovereignty must go hand in hand.”