All Isaac Nelson wants is the right to sell home processed pickles from time to time without having to navigate what he believes are onerous and unnecessary state food regulations.
That’s why the Chapman farmer said he is pushing for his municipality to join 21 others around the state that have already adopted a legislative approved local food sovereignty ordinance.
Common sense approach
Forty-four other towns around the state have expressed interest in the local food ordinance with some placing it on town meeting agendas this spring, including the northern Maine municipality Chapman.
“I’ve done a lot of research on food regulations,” said Nelson, who operates Baird Farms in Chapman. “To me, this ordinance is just common sense.”
Approved by the legislature last summer, the law allows towns to adopt an ordinance granting it the authority to regulate the direct, producer-to-consumer exchanges, food processing and distribution free from state regulatory control.
Signed by Gov. Paul LePage in June, the law was amended in October to exclude meat and poultry products after the United States Department of Agriculture stepped in saying if the state failed to regulate those products, the federal government would take over those food inspection programs.
Supporters of food sovereignty, like Nelson, want local food producers to be exempt from state licensing and inspections governing the selling of food as long as the transactions are between the producers and the customers for home consumption or when the food is sold and consumed at community events such as church suppers.
Towns in Maine began adopting food sovereignty ordinances as far back as 2011, but it was only with passage of last summer’s legislation that the state was required to recognize those local ordinances.
“We’ve made pickles, jams and all kinds of stuff for years but are not allowed to sell it,” Nelson said. “I’m legally allowed to give you a jar of pickles without having to be inspected or approved or certified by the state, but I can’t sell you that same jar.”
Moreover, Nelson said he can take that same jar of homemade pickles and give it to a non-profit group who, under current Maine food laws, can then turn around and sell it as a fundraiser — no certification or inspection needed.
“How can the non-profit legally sell it and how can I legally give it to you, but if you give me a dollar for them, it’s potentially hazardous?” Nelson said.
According to those charged with maintaining the integrity of Maine’s food supply, it’s all about safety and protecting the Maine brand, something they say is common sense and there is no need for food sovereignty laws in Maine
“We believe [the food sovereignty ordinance] is not good for the health of Maine people or for Maine agriculture,” said Maine Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Walt Whitcomb. “These ordinances will just increase the possibility that folks will purchase food that will make them sick.”
State certification, Whitcomb said, assures the consumer that the food producer’s entire operation is safe, sanitary and accountable.
“We have a good food system with basic, fundamental laws,” said Ron Dyer, the department’s Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources Bureau director. “Our job is to protect Maine people and the Maine brand and there is a lot of risk if something goes wrong [and] we are hoping the towns that do approve the food sovereignty ordinances will do something to protect food safety.”
That argument makes no sense to food sovereignty advocates like Richard Loring King who has worked with local food groups to develop an ordinance template for communities interested in adopting it.
“Nobody is trying to say they don’t want food safety,” King said. “But food has been traded as long as there has been food [and] local people know the local food producers and trust each other.”
No one in the state agriculture department is anti-local food producers, Dyer said. But at the same time he said steps must be taken to insure consumers are getting safe products.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 4,943 cases of foodborne illness in Maine from 1997 to 2017 and none attributed directly to a farm or dairy. The records did not indicate if the sources were from products grown or made inside or outside the state. Nor does the Maine Department of Agriculture have that specific information.
Without state inspections and licensing, Dyer fears that statistic could change with producers preparing food items in facilities not meeting basic sanitary or health standards leading to increased instances of diseases such as E.coli, listeria, botulism or salmonella.
“We are focused on prevention,” Dyer said, saying his department wants to prevent food from unsanitary facilities from reaching the consumer.
“We don’t want a case where someone gets sick,” he said. “And we do find instances that could turn your stomach.”
The help and support is available for those who need it, Dyer said.
“The state as a whole has produced a wide support structure for food producers,” he said. “The University [of Maine] is a big partner [and] we provide all that support for a nominal fee.”
For an annual fee of $25, the department issues a license that covers food preparation and processing including commercial kitchens, maple syrup production, honey, meal and poultry processing, dairy products and retail sales.
In return the license holder has access to state food experts’ expertise, laboratories and advice.
“Licensed producers use our services multiple times a year and get thousands of dollars in services for that $25 fee,” Whitcomb said. “It’s easier to ‘work ahead’ than to deal with sick people [and] it’s a better use of public funds to help producers than to run around and pull unsafe products that have to be recalled.”
Producers over politics
As far as Heather Retberg, food sovereignty advocate who helped craft the ordinance, is concerned, state licensing of food production is more politics than safety.
“Policies didn’t change because there were food safety problems with local food production at all,” Retberg said. “The [Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation] and food industry lobby have spent years painting farmers without licenses as ‘un-farmers’ [who are] either ignorant or incompetent of safe food production, albeit well meaning.”
That notion, she said, never took hold in Maine, where people have been selling or bartering for food on the local level for generations — often in secret so as not to risk being caught violating state regulations.
“When a town adopts the local food ordinance people who buy food and people who produce food are taking responsibility for how that exchange happens,” Retberg said. “What’s changed is that now those exchanges can happen legally [and] farmers don’t have to operate off the radar anymore and people in towns can buy the food they choose from their farm of choice.”
There is a segment of Maine’s population that prefers locally grown and produced food and these people trust the producers, King said.
Dyer noted there are thousands of licensed food producers in the state with more applying for licenses all the time.
“We don’t turn people down — we work with them,” Dyer said. “We can get people where they need to be for certification with low-cost options.”
Whitcomb said he is a believer in Mainers having access to Maine-produced food, but that food has to be safe.
All it takes, Whitcomb said, is one cheese-borne or similar illness in the state to destroy the entire industry.
“There are so many unknowns with the food sovereignty ordinance [and] we are not sure if anybody will even be watching for food safety if they don’t have inspections or licenses,” Whitcomb said. “In a system as critical as the food system, these producers need our support and the help we provide.”
Nelson is not convinced.
“The state makes it seem like they are looking out for us, so you can go into a store and just because something is ‘state certified’ you are supposed to think it is safe,” Nelson said. “That is not always the case [and] food sovereignty is about getting to know who you are buying your food from and that trust that is there.”
Local yes, sovereign no
The state may not want to get behind food sovereignty, Retberg said, but thanks to the legislation they have no choice and the movement continues to pick up steam.
“We could see all along that the idea of community self-governance over local food made sense to people,” she said. “Now that the state will will recognize local control over food produced in our communities exchanged between individuals, people aren’t afraid to articulate self-determination over their own food needs in their towns.”
As far as Nelson is concerned, if you can’t trust your neighbor to sell you healthy, safe food, free from regulatory control, who can you trust?
“It’s a face to face transaction,” he said. “You are buying from your neighbors and friends and chances are you just had a glass of their water yesterday, but the tate says they have to come in and certify them before you can buy their pickles?”
In that case, Whitcomb said, it really comes down to buyer beware, as his department is taking a wait and see approach to the ordinances.
“We have been told if anyone calls us for legal advice on what to do with regards to how a [food sovereignty] ordinance works in their town, we are not to comment,” Whitcomb said. “We at the agriculture department continue to believe in farmers and what they produce, but we also believe [food sovereignty] is the wrong direction pushed by some really selfish people.”
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Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated all 44 towns had placed the item on an upcoming town meeting warrant.