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Maine Lawmakers Rush To Fix New Food Sovereignty Law Before Feds Step In

Julia Bayly
Bangor Daily News
A public hearing is scheduled for Friday to gather testimony on a proposed amendment to Maine's new food sovereignty law.

Maine’s landmark food sovereignty law was on the books for less than a month before the federal government informed state officials in July the legislation was in need of tweaking.

Now advocates of food sovereignty in the state are preparing to defend the legislation during the upcoming October special legislative session.

The special legislative session will take up LD 1648, An Act to Amend the Law Recognizing Local Control Regarding Food Systems and Require Compliance with Federal and State Food Safety Regulations, sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, with a public hearing at 9:30 a.m. Friday in the Cross Office Building and in session at 10 a.m. Monday at the State House.

Jackson sponsored the original legislation that became the current food sovereignty law.

“Through cooperation and open dialog with the governor and the [Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry], we’ve arrived at what I believe is a fair solution,” Jackson said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m optimistic that during the upcoming special session, we’ll enact a fix to the food sovereignty law that will eliminate the risk of unnecessary federal intervention in our local food system while respecting and upholding the rights of small-scale farmers to provide food to their neighbors and their community — just as they’ve done for centuries.”

The amendment leaves most of the original law untouched but specifies meat and poultry produced or processed in municipalities with local food ordinance must comply with state regulations and are subject to state licensing and inspection.

For legislators like Jackson and Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, owner of Ricker Hill Orchards, one of New England’s largest apple farms, and an opponent of food sovereignty legislation at the state level, the amendment is the best chance for the law to remain on the books.

“I believe the only thing I can support is the face to face, at the farm and and the farm only sales,” Timberlake said Wednesday. “And I don’t even like that, but I am willing to compromise to get something done with the original bill.”

By keeping the exchanges between the farmer and consumer and at the farm, Timberlake said individuals may see and judge for themselves the level of food safety and cleanliness under which the produce was prepared.

“Then they can make a choice if they want to buy it,” he said. “But can we have someone with no food safety training decide to can some extra string beans and sell them at the local market where people expect that food to be safe?”

When it comes to meat and poultry, Timberlake said he is a firm believer in state regulatory control, at all levels of production and processing.

“It’s been a long, hard fight to get to this point,” Jesse Watson, owner of Midcoast Permaculture Design and co-drafter of language adopted as Rockland’s food sovereignty resolution, said. “My basic feeling is I am not very excited or enthused by this amendment, but it seems like a necessary step to take at this time.”

Set to go into effect Nov. 1, the first of its kind law in the country allows Maine municipalities to regulate local food systems, including production, processing, consumption and direct producer-to-consumer exchanges, which currently are regulated at the state and federal levels.

Gov. Paul LePage signed the law in June, but in August he sent a letter to lawmakers informing them the law needed to be amended immediately. Specifically, he wrote that meat and poultry must be excluded from the bill so state officials can continue to regulate those products.

LePage called an emergency session for October to address the USDA’s concerns.

The move was in response to a letter from the USDA to Maine Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, saying states must maintain meat and poultry inspection programs that are “at least equal to” federal rules.

Failure to amend the new law, according to the USDA, would mean the federal government would step in to take over regulatory control of all meat and poultry processing in the state.

“For now, this does seem like a compromise,” Watson said. “To me, it says, ‘Yeah, you can have food sovereignty, except when it comes to meat and poultry.’ So what good is a food sovereignty law if you take some of the food out of it?”

At the same time, Watson said he and his fellow food sovereignty advocates are willing to compromise on this point if it means getting a foothold when it comes to home rule and local food production.

“I see this as probably the right compromise to make now, even though it does not make sense to me,” Watson said. “But we are going to hold the line here and we are going to work to figure out a way to undo any meat exemption in the law.”

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.