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Maine clarifies food freedom law for meat, poultry facilities

Maine earlier this month amended its newly adopted food freedom law to make it clear that local governments must “comply with state and federal laws when developing ordinances for meat and poultry production and sales.”

The legislative action avoids, for the moment, any possibility that the state’s law recognizing local food sovereignty could backfire and cause Maine to lose jurisdiction over its five meat processing facilities.

USDA demanded that Maine fix its Food Sovereignty Act, threatening that the federal government would take over. Maine is one of 27 states permitted by USDA to inspect some smaller meat processing facilities, mostly for only in-state sales.

Attorney Baylen J. Linnekin, author of the book “Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable,” says USDA probably wanted Maine just to repeal the Food Sovereignty Act.

“The Food Sovereignty Act faced its first test, and it survived,” says Linnekin, who  serves on the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund board.

Linnekin, whose 2016 book questions whether “command and control” regulations favored by the federal government contribute all that much to food safety, predicted Maine’s Food Sovereignty Act would likely “bump up against federal law.”

“If it sounds bizarre to you that the USDA will fight for its power to regulate the sale of a single steak in some rural Maine town, that’s not half of it,” he wrote after the law was amended. “The fact a law even exists that makes the USDA even believe the agency has such power is one part of the problem.”

The lawyer says it’s the fault of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled even baking bread in a private home is interstate commerce and therefore subject to federal regulation.

Maine’s Food Sovereignty Law and city and town food freedom ordinances allow farmers and other food producers to engage local consumers in direct sales. USDA questioned whether the emerging system would force it to close Maine’s state-inspected meat processors. That would have forced its livestock farmers to transport animals to out-of-state facilities for slaughter.

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