Food Freedom

Maine's Food Sovereignty Law Is a Hit

A year into their experiment with self-governance, the municipalities of Maine are embracing their new food freedoms


Joe Sohm Visions of America/Newscom

One year after Maine's groundbreaking food sovereignty law took effect, the capital city of Augusta has become the latest municipality to set food freedom in stone.

Maine's first-in-the-nation food sovereignty law, An Act To Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, allows local governments in the state to pass ordinances that exempt many direct-to-consumer food sales within city limits from burdensome state licensing and inspection requirements.

Bangor Daily News reporter Julia Bayly, who's done a great job covering Maine's food sovereignty movement (and, more generally, reporting on food and agriculture in the state), had a fantastic piece this week on the positive impact of the law's first year.

Augusta's move and the Bangor Daily News piece are just more evidence of food sovereignty's continued success as it spreads across Maine. Two years ago, at least 15 municipalities in Maine adopted a food sovereignty ordinance (FSO). At the time, these local ordinances were merely aspirational in nature. When an FSO conflicted with state law, the local ordinance was unenforceable.

But Maine's statewide food sovereignty law changed the game. No longer were Maine cities and towns that adopted FSOs fighting state law. They were embracing it.

Food sovereignty has taken off as a result. Reports this past March indicated that 21 Maine cities and towns had passed local ordinances. Now, roughly eight months later, that number has already doubled. According to the website Local Food Rules, which tracks food sovereignty in Maine, forty-five cities and towns have now passed FSOs, including more than twenty just this year. More are sure to come. Reports this week suggest the town of Sanford may be next in line to adopt an ordinance.

What's behind the FSO movement? Mainers' fervor for food sovereignty began to solidify in the state at the beginning of this decade, in the wake of the state's prosecution of a raw milk farmer. Another key impetus for the movement was a state exemption for farmers who wanted to sell less than $1,000 in poultry annually. Those who wished to sell poultry under the so-called exemption first had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to comply with state regulations.

"Show me a farmer who spends $30,000 to sell $1,000 worth of food and I'll show you a farmer who's out of business," I write in Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.

Similar absurdities abounded under Maine law. As one Maine farmer pushing for an FSO in his town told the Bangor Daily News earlier this year, current state law means he could make pickles and give them away to anyone, or give them to a nonprofit that could in turn sell them. But food-safety rules mean he can't sell those same pickles himself.

Not everyone in the state takes so dim a view of such rules. Walt Whitcomb, who heads Maine's agriculture department, warned earlier this year that food sovereignty "will just increase the possibility that folks will purchase food that will make them sick."

Maybe. Or maybe not.

Wyoming health department officials warned similarly that cases of foodborne illness in the state would increase after Wyoming passed a food freedom law several years ago. But the state experienced no such outbreaks, as I reported last year.

The same appears to be true in Maine. Bayly, of the Bangor Daily News, reported earlier this year that none of Maine's nearly 5,000 cases of foodborne illness could be "attributed directly to a farm or dairy."

Earlier this week, I reached out by email and phone to Ron Dyer, a senior official with Maine's agriculture department who's expressed misgivings over the law. I asked if he was aware of any foodborne illnesses that could even be linked to a city or town that had passed an FSO. Dyer did not respond to my inquiry.

As good as it is, Maine's food sovereignty law could be better still. Maine lawmakers were forced to water down the law after USDA threats last year. Food sovereignty still doesn't cover sales of meat and poultry. It's not as sweeping as Wyoming's food freedom law. (Food freedom laws, such as that in Wyoming, are better than food sovereignty laws. The former deregulate everywhere in a state, while the latter apply only in cities and town, such as in Maine, that opt into a state law by passing an FSO.)

But to wallow in the fact an excellent law isn't perfect is merely to recite an aphorism. Maine's food sovereignty law is a great law. May it continue to spread throughout its home state and beyond.

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  1. I don’t know this mythical Maine of which you speak.

    1. Walk northeast until your fingers and toes fall off.

      1. Wait for spring.

      2. Won’t work, you will fall in the ocean first.

    2. You can’t get there from here

  2. “will just increase the possibility that folks will purchase food that will make them sick.”

    You mean like all of the e. coli oubreaks we get from the “regulated” food distributors who pay the state entry fee? If people get sick from a food source, people will shop elsewhere.

    1. ” If people get sick from a food source, people will shop elsewhere.” The great libertarian myth. How would people know it was from that shop? And where is your care for the people who had to die to show the shop was selling dirty food? There have been many instances of state over-reach in many countries regarding food safety, but the basic idea was created from necessity. Food adulteration and lack of safety measures have been a problem for thousands of years – there are regulations in the Old Testament – showing how important it is to have codified regulations that can be applied to everyone selling food.

      1. And how well did that work out with the romaine recall last week?

        1. You mean other than the fact that it was the CDC which identified the source of the contamination (lettuce that was already harvested, bagged, and sold by the producer), the FDA that issued the recall (again – of lettuce that was already shipped and sold by producers) – and it is the producers who have resisted all the measures (source labelling) that make it damn near impossible to trace contaminated product back to its actual source rather than requiring a general industry-wide recall that affects all producers.

          IOW – there is not ONE producer of lettuce that is going to assume the costs of CDC/FDA (or private third-party) inspection on its own. Unless every other producer also assumes/shares that cost. And if that is the option (a private cartel/monopoly) – they will force those costs onto the consumer anyway. There is also absolutely zero reason to assume a private third-party would EVER be able to acquire the epidemiological info from patients that allows a contamination ‘mistake’ to even be seen – since that medical data would end up in the hands of a Facebook-type that would sell that data to anyone who is interested in paying for it – for whatever reason they want to pay for it – and that also means the end of doctor-patient confidentiality.

          Don’t get me wrong. I like the Maine law and its ilk. I fucking despise you anarchoRothbard twits who are more moronic about human nature or reality than even commies.

      2. Another libertarian “myth” is that food producers might voluntarily submit to inspections by companies or organizations whose business consisted of providing information about food safety. The “myth” further postulates that food producers who weren’t subject to such inspections would be at a competitive disadvantage.

  3. I asked if he was aware of any foodborne illnesses that could even be linked to a city or town that had passed an FSO. Dyer did not respond to my inquiry.

    No one can deny the possibility that he had succumbed to a foodborne illness that could be linked to a city or town that had passed an FSO.

  4. People often use the inefficiency of 50 (or more) local jurisdictions writing 50 different sets of ordinances as a justification for federal or higher levels of regulation, and it’s great to see more examples of that not being the case.

    In California, anyway, it’s almost always the case with commercial real estate development that land located within a city limit is more valuable than land in an unincorporated area of the county. There are a number of reasons with that–all having to do with the time, effort, and difficulty associated with getting decision makers familiar with your project. The other part is that counties need to take the interests of people outside your area into consideration when looking at your project. It’s bad enough if a vested interest across town is against your project for some reason–even worse if you need to contend with the vested interests of everyone everywhere else in the country, too. A city council, on the other hand, knows what they want and why–and tailoring your project to their preferences just makes things so much easier.

    1. I bet it’s the same with food regulation or anything else. It would be interesting to do a statistical analysis of the phenomenon. I’m sure multicity corporations would rather have one set of regulations to contend with at the state level–the ability to influence policy at the state level to make it harder for small competitors is probably a bonus. Multistate corporations probably like federal regulation for the same reason–one set of regulations that also happens to facilitate rent-seeking.

      Meanwhile, cities tend to copy each other when something works. 50+ different jurisdictions copying each other doesn’t necessarily lead to 50+ different regulations.

    2. City managers want to expand, which means at the county’s expense; thus city managers salivate at the prospect of new developments while county managers abhor them.

  5. Half page ad, Pg3 in today’s dead-tree version:

    “Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it”

  6. A couple of those quotes are enlightening, or should be, if only statists would recognize what is wrong with them. Civil servants, such as health and safety inspectors, ideally would just do their job and leave the politicking alone. But they can’t — they are bureaucrats first and foremost, and the number one job of bureaucrats is to expand their fiefdoms. Got to look for opportunities to expand. Thus they can’t just sit back and let the legislator tell them what the size of the bureaucracy is, or what areas of civilian life are out of bounds. They have to lobby the legislator against reducing their fiefdom and for expanding it. This means finding peril in unexpected places, it means fighting innovation which would allow them to do their jobs with fewer people and resources, it means hiring only people who will not aspire to better jobs or promotions which might put their own job at risk.

  7. Bangor Daily News

    But I just met her daily news.

  8. Years ago in Massachusetts, the head of the Department of Motor Vehicles was horrified that the public would be able to pump their own gas. Fireballs, don’t you know. Even simply maintaining regulations gives a certain kind of person a feeling of great power.

  9. Food safety is why I keep a big chunk of cesium hanging in my kitchen.

  10. A year into their experiment with self-governance, the municipalities of Maine are embracing their new food freedoms

    It’s necessary to pass laws in order to have freedom? *sigh*

  11. OMG everyone in Maine is going to die of tainted food now! Maybe not!

  12. Maine charges 1.5% tax on exporting blueberries in violation of the US Constitution. Congress has yet to give approval.

    Maine?4303. Rate of tax
    There is levied and imposed a tax at the rate of 1 1/2? per pound on all wild blueberries processed in this State and on all unprocessed wild blueberries shipped to a destination outside this State. The tax is computed on the gross weight of the wild blueberries as delivered prior to any processing or shipping. The processor that first receives unprocessed wild blueberries in the State, or the shipper that transports unprocessed wild blueberries to a destination outside the State, is responsible for reporting and paying the tax.

    United States Constitution Article I, ? 10, Clause 2: No state shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection laws: and the net produce of all duties and imposts, laid by any state on imports or exports, shall be for the use of the treasury of the United States; and all such laws shall be subject to the revision and control of the Congress.

  13. Once, again, more proof that government fucks everything up. Cut ALL government at ALL levels drastically and watch your life get better, easier, and less expensive.

    1. Or just prohibit it from initiating force.

  14. Where is “food” specified in the Constitution? I don’t see it in the Federal document, and I don’t see it in the State documents I have, as of now, checked.

    If all unconstitutional activities ceased, the cost of government at all levels would decrease 80%.

    I can’t believe that “food sovereignty” is actually a thing that needs to be discussed.

  15. As a professional chef I have mixed feelings about this. Yes there are way to many needless food regulations that often are nothing more than window dressing that don’t solve or can even make food illness more prevalent. Gloves are a case in point. The concept seems good but the reality is not. Before gloves people would frequently wash their hands to get the gunk off them. With gloves not so much. I’m constantly having to tell prep cooks to change their gloves. I think the writer of this article and many of the commenters are very flippant about how no one is going to get sick. Or even worse people saying if they get sick they won’t go back there. Really? The author even sites how Wyoming has not seen an increase in food bore illnesses. But maybe they should have added yet to that statement. Like the financial people say when selling you equities, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Food is a very perishable product, which leads many to practice unsavory behavior to avoid discarding product. This country as well as all others have a long history of fraudulent food practices.

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