A bill awaiting Gov. Paul LePage’s signature – or veto – would allow dairy, meat and other foods produced on farms throughout Maine to be sold to consumers without going through any inspection process as long as the transaction happens at the farm or in consumers’ homes.

The bill, which the Senate approved by a vote of 24 to 11 last week, would deregulate direct farm sales across the state and have far broader consequences than the food sovereignty bill LePage signed this week.

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson and approved unanimously in the Senate, allows municipalities to pass ordinances declaring themselves “food sovereign.” Twenty Maine communities have done so, to date, typically allowing farmers to be exempt from state inspection and regulations as long as the transaction happens between a farmer and a consumer who understands what they’re buying. That could include raw milk or a freshly slaughtered chicken.

The broader law would go much further, creating exemptions in laws meant to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses, essentially overriding them.

Farmers who support food sovereignty say it enables them to be nimble in what is a much-lauded but risky profession, dependent on factors like weather, and which even in the best scenarios, provides slim margins. If it’s a bad year for something they have been licensed to make, say, strawberries they planned to turn into jam and sell, they might switch to yogurt making without going through a licensing process that would include creating a separate, plumbed room to make that yogurt in.

The statewide bill was sponsored by Brooksville Rep. Ralph Chapman, who lives in the heart of the region where the Maine food sovereignty movement began in 2011. That’s when Sedgwick became the first town on the Blue Hill Peninsula to declare food sovereignty.

Chapman said that his bill would allow unincorporated communities, which by definition can’t create ordinances, the opportunity to participate in direct farmer-to-consumer sales without fear of violating any laws. Indeed, it would open up the entire state to that possibility. And to a great deal of food that has not been made in licensed kitchens or processed in inspected facilities.

Someone from Portland who wanted raw milk from Blue Hill could drive up there and pick it up, stopping at every small farm along the route back to Portland to purchase “farm food products.” That definition includes everything from fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish to grains, apple cider and maple syrup. (Retail sales of unlicensed products off the farm would still be prohibited.)

From Chapman’s perspective, such Mainer-to-Mainer transactions have been happening for a long time already.

“There was a tremendous underground market,” Chapman said. “People couldn’t do it legally so they did it illegally.” One of his chief reasons for supporting the food sovereignty movement has been his desire to end the black market on uninspected raw milk and other products, in part so that any food safety concerns can then be addressed directly, with transparency.

“I want to see it above ground,” he added. “If there is a problem, we need to be able to see it to fix it.”

The Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry was reviewing the legislation Friday.

“We are … still determining what the legal issues are regarding the law’s implementation,” John Bott, the department’s director of communication, said in an email.

Across the state, farmers and food system advocates were still processing the implications of Jackson’s bill while pointing out that Chapman’s broader bill further overrides a system that has been set up for public protection. The Maine Cheese Guild, which has nearly 90 members, opposed Chapman’s bill, according to its president, Jessie Dowling, who testified against it. While the group wants to encourage beginning cheesemakers who might be experimenting in unlicensed kitchens, she said dairy products carry certain risks that are offset by the licensing process, which she said is inexpensive and easy.

Phelps Turner, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation who is also coordinator for the Maine Legal Food Hub, said the bill seeks to exempt farms from safety provisions. “I do think it raises food safety concerns,” Turner said.

It could also put Maine farmers in jeopardy of running afoul of the requirements of the Food & Drug Administration, he said. Typically, Turner said, the FDA is involved in regulating interstate commerce, but there also are important food safety rules under the new Food Safety Modernization Act that go into effect in 2018 that the agency says will apply even if sales stay within a state.

There are many unknowns, including the governor’s interest in pushing deregulation even further. LePage had vetoed other, similar measures in the past, so it came as something as a surprise that he signed the bill recognizing municipal food sovereignty. Chapman, sponsor of the statewide bill, said that new law is part of the natural progression of an educational process communities have been involved with for nearly a decade.

“If you look at what foods are causing problems on a national level due to say, E.coli, it is the very large producers with multiple state distribution. What I will call big agriculture.”

LePage’s spokesperson did not respond to an email asking whether the governor will sign the bill into law.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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