At the turn of the 20th century, it was common for Americans to die of foodborne illnesses. Progress in food handling and inspection and the advent of federal regulations have greatly reduced the risk of death from a meal.
While federal oversight can be cumbersome, there is good reason for national food safety standards, especially for meat, poultry and dairy. Maine needs to maintain these standards, not turn them over to local officials.
Maine lawmakers somehow overlooked these benefits and passed a law earlier this year allowing municipalities to regulate local food systems, including production, processing, consumption and direct producer-to-consumer exchanges. These are regulated at the state and federal levels. The law did not change the standards for wholesale or retail sales.
Supporters of the law said it would allow small farmers to diversify, would encourage more young people to farm and would reduce red tape.
Federal regulators said the law, the only one in the country, could run afoul of federal food safety laws and regulations because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is not convinced municipal ordinances would meet federal standards for meat and poultry.
In a July 6 letter to Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the federal Food Safety and Inspection Services said that Maine’s inspections of meat and poultry must be “at least equal to” federal inspection programs.
These standards are needed to ensure people do not get sick and possibly die from eating food that has been mishandled. Beef, for example, is responsible for nearly half the cases of E. coli in the United States, according to a recent report from U.S. food and health agencies.
So the U.S. Department of Agriculture, predictably, said a patchwork of municipal ordinances was unacceptable. As a result, lawmakers must meet in a special session to fix the law, which is set to go into effect on Nov. 1, or the USDA will terminate the state’s inspection authority and the federal agency will take over all meat and poultry inspection responsibilities in the state. The state has been delegated authority by the USDA to enforce federal standards.
“Food safety is a big issue and we want to make sure that people have confidence when they go and buy meats in our stores,” Senate President Mike Thibodeau told Maine Public last month in support of the special session.
The simplest solution is to change the state law to maintain state oversight of meat and poultry production and processing to ensure federal standards are met. If the law is not amended, the red tape that food sovereignty advocates hoped to avoid will get worse for livestock and poultry farmers.
Currently, there are five state-licensed facilities, 30 custom facilities, 51 small poultry processing facilities and 2,714 small retail processing facilities that would be affected in Maine, LePage said in an Aug. 29 letter to lawmakers. All of these facilities would switch from state oversight to federal inspection if the law is not changed to meet USDA standards.
“If the state program is eliminated, small farms will lose the most,” LePage wrote in the letter.
This is a compelling reason to fix the law. But the primary reason is to ensure food safety in Maine.