Mainers have been buying food, including raw milk, directly from local farmers for generations. It’s a practice worth preserving.
Direct farmer-to-buyer sales are part of the state’s heritage, but conflicts between Department of Agriculture officials entrusted with protecting the safety of Maine’s food supply and local “food sovereignty” advocates have shifted the focus of those transactions from the barn to a courtroom. In a civil suit decided against Blue Hill farmer Dan Brown last month, Hancock Superior Court Justice Ann Murray ruled that state licensing requirements supersede Blue Hill’s Local Food and Community Self Governance Ordinance, one of nine municipal food sovereignty ordinances in Maine.
Brown now faces civil penalties for selling milk without a license, selling raw milk without marketing it as such, and operating a food establishment without a license. He says the ruling “shuts me down completely.”
It’s well established that state laws take precedence over local rules. But they also should change to reflect evolving circumstances. In this case, that means balancing the financial realities of “homestead” farmers who sell raw milk to customers who want it with ensuring that “scale-appropriate” safety precautions are in place.
Farmers with three cows shouldn’t have to pay to install concrete floors and stainless steel sinks if they can use hot water, sterilization tools and test-kits for pathogens to ensure that the milk they sell is safe.
It makes sense to seek a compromise that would make it possible for niche farmers like Brown to stay in business by selling raw milk in ways that don’t undermine public health. A bill recommended for passage after a split vote Tuesday by the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee offers potential to strike that balance.
The bill, LD 1282, An Act to Help Small Farmers in Selling Raw Milk and Homemade Food Products, would exempt raw milk producers who sell no more than 20 gallons per day from the licensing and inspection requirements that put Brown in violation of state law. The legislation would free homestead farmers from structural requirements that they say are beyond their means and licensing mandates that they say should not apply to sales that generally involve neighbors.
The bill would only allow sales from the farmer’s property or at farmers markets. It would require that each container be labeled with a warning that “this product is made from raw milk and is exempt from state of Maine licensing and inspection.”
The labeling component is important because the bill would change state law to allow the sale of raw milk at farmers markets, which expands the transaction beyond a neighbor-to-neighbor exchange. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that consumption of raw milk, especially by children, poses a greater likelihood of health risks than consumption of pasteurized milk, so consumers must have a clear indication of what they’re buying to make informed decisions. Based on reports from state and local health departments, four out of every five reported disease outbreaks attributed to milk product consumption between 1998 and 2011 were traced to raw milk. Most were caused by bacterial infection, with two resulting in death during that 13-year period.
If the full Legislature passes LD 1282, practical rules for its implementation will have to be put in place. Those rules should make it possible for the Department of Agriculture to work closely with homestead farmers to ensure that their milk is safe for neighbors to drink. And farmers need to stop portraying state officials who are trying to protect the integrity of Maine’s entire local food production network as overbearing bureaucrats.They’re on the same side.