News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Castine Patriot, September 6, 2017 and The Weekly Packet, September 6, 2017
Food sovereignty bill heads back to Legislature
LePage calls for emergency session

by Anne Berleant

A hard-fought push for local authority over farm-raised food and products received a big win when the 128th Legislature passed LD 725, “An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems,” which Governor Paul LePage signed into law on June 16.

LD 725 permits municipal governments to regulate local food systems by ordinance, “an incredible validation” Penobscot farmer Heather Retberg said when it was signed into law.

Now, LePage has called for an emergency legislative session in November, to amend the bill to exempt poultry and meat products, writing Senate and House leaders on August 29 that the United States Secretary of Agriculture “has served notice to me that he is preparing to exercise federal control of all meat and poultry slaughter and processing unless LD 725 is changed immediately.”

The federal Office of Food Safety contacted Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walter Whitcomb on July 6, stating its concern how, under the new law, the Maine meat and poultry inspection programs would maintain requirements at least equal to those in the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act.

Representative Ralph Chapman (D-Brookskville) noted the timing of LePage’s call for an emergency session over the bill: “Curiously, the administration received this letter [from the Federal Office of Food Safety] in early July, almost a month before the legislature adjourned. Clearly this could have been brought up during the regular session.”

LD 725 applies only to direct sales, and that any food or food product that is intended for wholesale or retail distribution outside the municipality “must be grown, produced or processed in compliance with all applicable state and federal laws, rules and regulations.”

The food sovereignty movement is rooted on the Blue Hill Peninsula, and invoked Maine’s Home Rule statute to help pass a Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance in Sedgwick, Penobscot and Blue Hill, created by a group of local farmers in 2011.

“The Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance was drafted around our kitchen table seven years ago with the help of other farmers, food eaters, lawyers and farm workers,” Retberg testified to the legislative Committee on State and Local Government at an April public hearing.

Nineteen other communities have passed similar ordinances since then, despite a successful challenge in 2013 against raw milk dairy farmer Dan Brown of Blue Hill that went all the way to the Maine Supreme Court.

In recent years, the legislature has considered an increasing number of bills each year aimed at protecting local food sovereignty, with opposition mostly from large dairies, dairy and dairy food associations, and the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which initiated the suit against Brown.

However, the legislative committee voted 8-4 that LD 725 should pass. The House approved the bill 189-85, and the Senate, 110-16.