AUGUSTA — With the fate of 90 percent state’s locally raised beef, poultry and pork on the line, lawmakers scrambled Friday to reach a deal to fix a recently passed law that was designed to allow farmers to sell their goods directly to consumers on the farm.

But after a threat from the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture that could have shuttered five state-licensed slaughterhouses, as well as dozens of other meat-processing facilities including small poultry processors or custom meat cutters, the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee unanimously passed a bill that clarifies the state’s food sovereignty law, which allows local governments to set regulations for face-to-face sales on the farm.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who signed the sovereignty bill into law earlier this year, called a special lawmaking session to fix the bill and protect the income of thousands of Maine farmers.

The change, if approved by the full Legislature, would still allow face-to-face sales from farmers to consumers on farms, but certain products – including meat and poultry – would first have to processed in a licensed slaughterhouse that meets the requirements of federal food safety laws.

Though non-processed products like raw fruits and vegetables, live animals or eggs are not subject to the change, Friday’s committee vote did attempt to make sure that any future concerns by the Food and Drug Administration, the other major federal entity that regulates food safety, would not become a problem for those who grow other types of produce that is processed into food ranging from wild blueberries to aquaculture products like farmed-raised seaweed and shellfish.

The Legislature is expected to vote on the fix to the law when it comes in on Monday for the special session.

Without the change, the state risks losing its Maine Meat and Poultry Inspection Program on Nov. 1. The operation is sanctioned by the USDA, but is run by the state’s Department of Agriculture, which provides daily no-cost inspections for the five slaughterhouses as well as intermittent inspections for over 30 custom slaughterhouses, 51 small poultry producing facilities and 2,741 retailers, according to the program’s manager, State Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Eberly.

Eberly told the committee Friday that following the passage of the food sovereignty law, federal regulators put Maine on notice that if the state was unable to enforce laws and provisions of the federal Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts, it would lose its designated status and the state’s inspection program would have to stop.

Eberly reminded the committee that the state’s program was the result of farmers and businesses working together over the last 15 years to develop a system to address an unmet need to expand local slaughterhouse options.

Beyond Eberly, dozens of farmers, including those who raise cattle, hogs, goats and chickens, testified before the committee urging them to fix the law. Many said without the fix they risked losing thousands of dollars worth of product.

“Food sovereignty sounds great, but it comes with all these implications,” said Melvin Williams, a Waldoboro farmer, “It’s about food safety. I don’t care how good of a farmer you are, if you don’t have somebody looking over your shoulder you are going to try to pull a fast one. It always happens. This is a temporary fix, but let’s get it done.”

Lawmakers on the committee said the threat for farms was immediate and real.

“I don’t think the general public realized how dire this situation is,” said Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton. Black, who operates a farm, including raising cattle for beef, said lawmakers wanted to protect the rights of municipalities to set their own ordinances around farm sales, but didn’t want to run afoul of a food-safety system that intertwines state and federal regulation, especially at the cost of farmers not being able to get their meat processed or to market. He echoed the concerns some had about ensuring a safe food system in Maine. Others pointed out that one bad outbreak of food poisoning from an unregulated farm could give an entire sector a black eye, even if most were following all the best practices for handling and processing food.

A number of witnesses argued that state and federal laws regulating food were in place largely to protect consumers’ health and safety.

The bill approved by the committee Friday fixes a law – “An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems” – that endorses the right of Maine communities to declare themselves “food sovereign,” something 20 communities, including several on the Blue Hill Peninsula, already have done. Another 25 or so municipalities in Maine have similar ordinances under consideration.

In practical terms, it means consumers can buy directly from farmers and food producers in those communities who are operating outside of state and federal licensing. The legislation was intended by those who shaped it, including state Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, its sponsor, and state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who has put forth numerous similar bills, as a means to encourage local food production and consumption.

And while all of the committee members voted for the bill some members said they were concerned the proposed law change may have gone a little too far in reeling back provisions of a hard-fought state law that had taken years to pass and was surprisingly supported by LePage.

“Although there is strong reason to think that the federal government’s threats could do serious damage to our state and therefore needed something, I think what we ended up passing was a little bit more than what was needed,” said Rep. Ralph Chapman, an independent from Brooksville.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog