Endorsement For Food Regulations Increasing In Maine

Recently the towns of Appleton and Livermore voted to enact the Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance.

The number of Maine towns that have adopted a controversial ordinance governing the rights of local farmers to sell food directly to consumers has grown to eight.

Recently the towns of Appleton and Livermore voted to enact the Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance. They join the towns of Sedgwick, Penobscot, Blue Hill, Trenton, Hope and Plymouth, which passed the ordinance last year. Fayette took up the ordinance at its town meeting on Saturday, but voted it down.

The ordinance exempts small farms from state and federal licensing and inspection requirements when farmers sell food directly to neighbors and other individuals.

"The state finds itself in no position to recognize the ordinances," said Maine Department of Agriculture commissioner Walt Whitcomb. He noted that state and federal law supersedes local ordinances.

The Maine Department of Agriculture has been granted authority by the US Department of Agriculture to inspect certain slaughter facilities. Were the state to endorse these local food ordinances, the USDA could revoke the state's inspection authority.

In what Whitcomb said is an unrelated case, the state is currently suing a Blue Hill farmer for selling raw milk to two customers without a license. State licensing of raw milk sold commercially requires the milk to be tested four times within a six-month period. The case is expected to be heard in Hancock Superior Court in Ellsworth.

Since the initial Maine towns passed this ordinance last year, the ordinance has been used as a model by communities in California, with Santa Cruz County passing a similar ordinance.

At the recent Appleton Town Meeting, the moderator called for attendees to cast paper ballots on the measure. It passed by 29 to 18. In Livermore, the ordinance passed unanimously during a floor vote at the Town Meeting.

According to farmer Doug Wollmar of New Moorings Farm in Sedgwick, who is a member of the group promoting the measure, the ordinance originally stemmed from farmers' frustration at federal rule changes that removed an exemption for small chicken farmers.

Previously, farmers with fewer than 1,000 chickens could slaughter and process those birds on the farm. The rule effectively prohibited the practice. Wollmar said the group first approached the Legislature in hopes of getting the change reversed. When that effort failed, the group decided to use Maine's home rule provision to draft the ordinance.

The primary objection to the ordinance involves concerns about food safety and the possibility for pathogens to contaminate unregulated food. According to the US Food & Drug Administration, 48 million people are sickened by food-borne illnesses in the US each year.

From those people, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

"The person who is worried about food that is not as regulated can go on buying from the grocery store," Wollmar said of the ordinance. "We recognize that the outbreaks aren't coming from small family farmers. And as we've seen with the Hannaford beef recall, the (federal government) can't even trace back where the (contaminated) food is coming from."

In December, Hannaford supermarkets recalled 117,000 pounds of ground beef contaminated with antibiotic-resistant salmonella after at least 20 people were sickened. The US Department of Agriculture was unable to determine where the beef came from. Hannaford refused to publicly name its suppliers, but said it sources ground beef from up to 12 slaughterhouses, and all of them are large plants that process feedlot finished beef.