October 18, 2018
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Proposed Farm Bill amendment could negate local food laws in Maine

Charlie Neibergall | AP
Charlie Neibergall | AP
Proposed language in the 2018 Farm Bill could overturn a number of state and local food laws in Maine.

Buried deep within the 641 pages of the proposed 2018 Farm Bill is an amendment that food sovereignty supporters fear is an attack on local control of food.

Introduced by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, HR. 4879, the amendment known as the Protect Interstate Commerce Act of 2018, adds language to the House version of the Farm Bill that would prevent states and local jurisdictions from interfering with the production and distribution of agricultural products in interstate or foreign commerce and for other purposes.

Specifically, King’s amendment would force states to authorize the sale of “any agricultural product” not prohibited under federal law.

That means if any one state allows the production or manufacture of a particular agricultural product, under the King amendment the other 49 must do so as well, regardless if existing state or local laws prohibit it.

A potential threat

“This is a cause for great concern,” said Betsy Garrold, the acting executive director of Food for Maine’s Future. “Small farmers and people in the local food movement see it as a real threat.”

Garrold said there are many unanswered questions when it comes to the King amendment, and she anticipates upcoming food sovereignty and sustainable food conferences in the coming days will provide specific information on exactly how it could affect Maine.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has gone on record against the King amendment, believing when it comes to food, states and communities should have the ability to respond to local needs and desires.

“Our state cares deeply about the relationships and trust that still exist between local farmers and their customers, and about how passionately communities want to hold on to the personal connections that have fed generations of Mainers,” Pingree said in an emailed statement this week. “Preserving a way of life that many Mainers value is why I support the food sovereignty law passed by the Maine Legislature.”

Approved by the legislature last summer and signed soon after by Gov. Paul LePage, Maine’s food sovereignty 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.

This means in Maine municipalities that have adopted a food sovereignty ordinance can establish their own food safety rules covering the sale of specified locally grown and produced food that supercede state regulations.

“It makes a strong stand for local foods, rural economies, and our communities,” Pingree said by email. “If the citizens of a town feel strongly enough to write their own rules for how food passes between them and the farmers they trust, I think that sends an important message to the state and federal government.”

She is also concerned that the King Amendment overrides state and local pesticide and animal welfare laws in Maine.

“We are a very active state and believe in agriculture and care deeply about the environment,” Pingree said in May while speaking on the House floor against the amendment. “We already have 30 local communities that have pesticide laws [that] would be eliminated under this because they would be preempted.”

Maine laws under threat

An analysis of the amendment by Harvard Law School found that hundreds of laws in all 50 states would be at risk or rendered unenforceable depending upon how courts interpret the language of the bill. This is because there are many things which could be broadly defined as “agricultural products and practices,” including baby food packaging, sell-by dates on food items, laws requiring identification of nontoxic wild mushrooms sold to consumers, import of live animals into the state, ocean fishing licensing and permitting, and even the minimum age puppies and kittens can be sold, all of which could be preempted if even one state has a less restrictive law.

Opponents of the amendment claim it is aimed at California laws that require eggs from out-of-state farmers to be produced according to the same humane standards California has imposed in-state farmers.

In a statement issued by his Congressional office in April, King, whose district covers one of the largest egg-producing regions in the country, claimed Iowa was being held hostage by California’s humane egg laws.

States do not have the constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce,” King said in the release. “If California or any other state wants to regulate how products are made within their borders, they can do so [but] Iowa’s producers should not be held hostage to the demands of California’s vegan lobby and California’s regulatory agencies.”

Not the right bill

As far as Pingree is concerned, the amendment is not worthy of a battle over states’ rights, as the rights of another state could trump established Maine laws and regulations.

“This is not a good states’ rights issue,” she said in May. “It’s not good for the issues we care about, and we should not allow that amendment to pass.”

It’s a broad brush approach in which some fear Maine could become entangled.

“I see it as targeting the food sovereignty movement,” Garrold said. “The food sovereignty movement is seen as something that could be a threat to corporate food production.”

The House and Senate have both passed their own versions of the 2018 Farm Bill, but a final version remains in limbo with the current Farm Bill set to expire at the end of September.

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