The Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled against Dan Brown, a Blue Hill dairy farmer who sold raw milk from his unlicensed, uninspected farm. The court viewed the case as a battle between farmers and state bureaucracy.
The issues at play in this episode, in fact, are far broader:
Choice. Is anything more intensely personal than what an individual chooses to ingest to fuel, sustain, or please his or her body? Exactly under what circumstances may private corporations or the government limit or control such choices? Might the making of those choices be allowed to vary depending upon the circumstances under which they unfold, or must regulation of such matters always be undertaken in “one size fits all” terms?
Sustainability and decentralization. Corporate agricultural practices are demonstrably unsustainable. They lead to oceanic and soil degradation, pesticide poisoning of our food and bodies, continuing dependence on petrochemicals, and bioengineering threats to unspoiled genetic variability in nature. Big Ag’s practices must be replaced worldwide by broadly decentralized, sustainable, smaller-scale agriculture, all the while preparing for decades of increasingly uncertain weather patterns and unpredictability in world food supply.
De-facto corporate control through government. Giant agribusiness corporations have a long established hegemony over food policy regulation at the federal level. Policy is written for the corporate behemoths whose enormous size allows them to accept regulatory provisions they can afford to write off, yet are scale-inappropriate for traditional farmers. In suing Brown for selling unpasteurized milk without a distributor’s license, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation illustrated the federal agricultural establishment’s achievement of effective control over corresponding state agencies. The power of the purse and numerous Supreme Court decisions have effectively turned constitutional authority over “interstate commerce” into something that encompasses intrastate activity as well and works against Maine’s self-assumed — but now largely ignored — obligation to support local farms and their patrons.
Trust. Huge practical and philosophical elements underlie the role that trust inevitably plays in actions aimed at securing safe and healthy food. How and where is food produced and processed? How many hands and procedures does it go through? What kinds of knowledge and sophistication in its application are required of the many players? The more links in the food chain, the greater the trust required, but also the more distant and elusive the bases for bestowing it. A moment’s thought tells us that no matter how food is inspected or regulated, customers can never relax vigilance or ignore the evidence of their own senses, especially sight and smell.
Thankfully, the Maine Supreme Court stretched itself to leave local food ordinances in Blue Hill and elsewhere untouched. But, in ruling against Brown, the court accepted the state’s argument regarding Maine’s food safety responsibilities.
It’s difficult, however, to trust the federal and state standards that are supposed to ensure food safety. Those standards and practices didn’t prevent, for example, the need in 2011 for Cargill to undertake two mammoth ground turkey recalls within just weeks of each other.
Gary Cox, Brown’s lawyer, put it this way: “If the purpose of the State law is to ‘assure the safety of food,’ then the Blue Hill ordinance creates a regulatory program that is safer than the State regulatory program. Specifically, the Blue Hill ordinance limits the commercial sale of food directly from the producer to the consumer. In that transaction, there is a single link in the chain of distribution.”
Maine’s 11 towns with local food self-governance ordinances have carved out a legal space wherein they can operationalize local knowledge, community norms and mores, direct observation by customers, and personal knowledge of food, food production, and food processing — the most robust bases for trust with respect to food.
For those who wish to partake of it, the ordinances sanction an alternative approach to food regulation in which the transactions are direct between a local producer or processor and a local patron.
Rather than being subordinate to federal and state standards as the Maine Supreme Judicial Court held, the local foods ordinances are different and, at the very least, equally effective in their operation to that of the corporate-defined, food regulatory system.
Eleven Maine communities have concluded the corporate-captured and woefully undersupported food regulation system is not the only or the best path to ensure public health, safety and welfare.
The effort will continue to spread despite the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s decision against Brown and will soon come to have a productive impact on Maine agriculture policy and its administration. The central issues remain insufficiently examined and unresolved. The local foods self-governance work will continue.
Hendrik Gideonse of Brooklin is a former selectman who has been working for several years to promote the interests of small farms. He teamed up with others this spring to pass a local foods ordinance in Brooklin.