Following the lead of Sedgwick, Maine to exempt itself from state and federal food safety regulations, three other towns in Hancock County are now poised to adopt similar “food sovereignty” measures. 

Titled “The Ordinance to Protect the Health and Integrity of the Local Food System,” Sedgwick’s four-page document invokes the town’s right to self-governance, and states that local producers and processors may sell food to consumers without licensing.  

“We have faith in our citizens’ ability to educate themselves and make informed decisions,” reads the ordinance, which was adopted unanimously March 5 at a meeting of about 100 residents. “We hold that federal and state regulations impede local food production and constitute a usurpation of our citizens’ right to foods of their choice.”

Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources is taking a wait-and-see attitude on Sedgwick’s self rule. Newly appointed Ag Commissioner Walter Whitcomb said he was aware of the initiative. Prior to assuming his new position, he had toured the area and met proponents of the ordinance.

“The Agriculture Department has not been aggressive on this subject, in part because these areas are currently before the state legislature,” said Commissioner Whitcomb about inspection and food processing concerns addressed by both the Sedgwick ordinance and two bills.  “Our staff has been dealing with these concerns for several years, but they’ve come to a head this year.  We kind of wanted that to work through the process before we became more active in enforcement.”

If approved, these two bills — LD 366 and LD 330 —  would further ease regulation of raw milk sales, and exempt farm and homemade food products from certain licensing requirements.  Agriculture department officials are preparing testimony on the proposed measures to present once hearings are scheduled. 

Sedgwick residents aren’t waiting for the state to grant more local control, they’ve seized it. “The [town] ordinance codifies the way that people have been doing food business for a very long time,” said Sedgwick farmer Bob St. Peters, who celebrated the passage of the ordinance by starting a home-based cookie business. If the enterprise is successful, his family can scale up their processing accordingly. The cottage industry route, he argues, avoids a big initial investment.  

“The direct relationship creates transparency and accountability and all the things you need to ensure a safe food system, and it’s been the way things have operated,” he explains.  “The certifications of home kitchens, the trend toward licensing and bureaucracy has really put a damper on small cottage industries and small farm businesses, and I think this is going to have the opposite effect.”

St. Peters said the Sedgwick ordinance grew out of a controversy over poultry, and a request from small farms slaughtering fewer than 1,000 birds to do so without having to use an indoor processing facility. There was a lot of back and forth debate but, in the end, the small poultry processors’ bid was denied.

 

“We felt like we, as farmers and farm patrons, presented a really good case to the state and they said we can’t help you because our state funding is at stake,” said St. Peters, referring to the state’s fear that it could lose federal funding for its meat inspection program if small producers were exempt from inspection.

“So we discussed other avenues,” St. Peters continued, “and some of us were familiar with different local ordinances, some that had passed in Maine regarding GMOs, others that had passed elsewhere regarding corporate personhood.  We felt that dealing with this on a town level was the way to go.”   

New England’s strong populist tradition is evident in ordinances banning GMO crops in certain areas. 

“I think there is a fair amount of authority in a New England town meeting process,” said Commissioner Whitcomb.  “State to state, it’s a little different.  It’s a citizen’s gathering and they have the absolute legislative authority on matters of finance, but they’re also kind of a populist event.

 “And sending a letter from the state telling a town they can and cannot do something inspires, probably, the opposite reaction.”

When a federal animal identification program, to track livestock in the event of an animal disease outbreak, was being discussed in Hancock County, a state representative got a pie of manure in his face. 

Whitcomb said the state Attorney General’s office is investigating the issue of local food regulation, and is drafting a formal legal response to the town.  Among the concerns to be raised are whether food produced in Sedgwick could be sold out of town or whether the town would have to notify consumers or face liability if food safety problems occurred.

“We haven’t found anything in the statute that says that the town can supersede the state on food safety,” Whitcomb said.  

  • Doc Mudd

    One of the worst bouts of food poisoning I ever endured wasn’t in Mexico, it was (you guessed it…) in Maine.
    ‘L.L. Bean’s revenge’?

  • @Doc Mudd…and the irony is that food safety regulations must have been in place at that time! Having laws doesn’t mean that people will follow them. I support this measure wholeheartedly, I also encourage people to become familiar with where their food is coming from and who is touching it along the way.
    P.S. ‘L.L. Bean’s revenge’–ha ha ha ha

  • Michael Bulger

    Do these towns expect to export any of their food products? I don’t think they should expect to be above inspection if they are hoping to market to populations not represented in their voting process.

  • Doc Mudd

    What can anyone expect from people so crude and hateful they would actually thrust “a pie of manure in [someone’s] face”?
    How does anyone reason with such nasty, grubby rascals?
    Why would any sane person choose to feed their family amateur-made stuff from Maine’s home kitchens, heh, especially pie? Yuck!!

  • Not so funny, Maine is where Jack DeCoster in 1949, age 16, first takes responsibility for 150 hens on his family’s farm. His business practices among other atrosities caused the largest egg recall in U.S. history in 2010.

  • Peter Block

    This measure is amazing, I hope it works. Just read or listen to any Joel Salatin and you will learn about the countless regulations that stop cottage industries. These little operations are usually MUCH cleaner and more sanitary than enormous ones, and if there is a food poisoning problem, you can easily find out the etiology and cause of it because all the farms are in town, you don’t have to search the entire country!
    @ Mike Bulgar: I dont think they want to export, I think any city with the awareness to pass a code like this is also willing to support an almost wholly local economy.

  • Bob Grenier

    If you look at food recalls that happen today, like the 226,400 lbs of ground beef recalled on the 2nd of march. I would rather have people buy from a local farmer and know who to hold responsible. When things go wrong with our current food system hundreds of tons are effected world wide. If you can’t recognize the benefit of locally grown and produced, then eat what you wish and let me do the same.

  • Ruth Sullivan

    To Doc Mudd and other naysayers:
    1. If you had read the ordinance you would understand that it only impacts one-on-one, direct farmer-to-customer transactions. It is designed to protect our rights to purchase foods from our neighbors, as we have been doing for hundreds of years. It also protects our rights to hold community pot-lucks, church suppers and bake sales to raise money for our needy families, boy scouts, middle school students, and countless others who have benefited from the sale of home-made treats in our communities.
    2. Regarding the pie in the face, Doc Mudd, I was at that meeting. A room full of concerned and frustrated farmers were working hard to reach a compromise with the Department of Agriculture when some students pulled that prank. We were disgusted and horrified.
    In the end, this ordinance is a declaration by a few Maine communities that we are proud of our sustainable, diversified farms; we want to eat our food produced locally by our friends and neighbors; and we want to retain the right to make those decisions for our selves. This is not a solution that will work everywhere. But it is one that makes sense for us.
    I’d thank all folks who post to be civil. You don’t have to agree, but it would be helpful if you were at least polite.

  • Mary L. Anderson

    Ruth, what I don’t understand is who or what exactly was preventing you from running a for-profit food business or holding a non-profit potluck in your town? Which rules did you all find objectionable? Licensing fees? Sanitation regulations? Environmental rules? Are they just too unreasonable in Maine? Please help me to understand why selling food is somehow more of a right than any other enterprise. If there is a restaurant in Sedgwick, will it not be inspected now?

  • Mary L. Anderson

    Ruth, what I don’t understand is who or what exactly was preventing you from running a for-profit food business or holding a non-profit potluck in your town? Which rules did you all find objectionable? Licensing fees? Sanitation regulations? Environmental rules? Are they just too unreasonable in Maine? Please help me to understand why selling food is somehow more of a right than any other enterprise. If there is a restaurant in Sedgwick, will it not be inspected now?

  • Doc Mudd

    No thank you, ma’am, I don’t care for any pie from your quaint Maine kitchen. I brought my own lunch, thank you very much.

  • Ex Pat Mainer

    As a former Mainer living in on the west coast, I can say my experience has been that Mainers love processed food. There’s a huge trend to buy and grow locally here, but whenever I visit Maine, it’s usually whatever’s available at Hannaford (which sometimes is local), including lots of chips, soda and frozen meats. Maybe it’s different up in Hancock? I also recall that debates like this arose not because people were concerned about health (Maine has high rates of obesity and alcoholism), but because a small group was too lazy to change its ways and the rest of the residents didn’t feel like fighting them.

  • Andrew

    There’s no need for bureaucratic interference of private contracts between individuals. Significant food-born illnesses occur practically exclusively in USDA facilities. The egg recall, the peanut butter recall and the beef recall are some of the most recent instances. Contamination can occur wherever negligence is present. Local distribution gives the consumer the ability to actually see or inspect the conditions in which the desired product is produced and processed. If somehow, due to poor sanitary conditions, food is contaminated and distributed locally, it remains a local problem, effecting few people. Also, the producer will not likely experience any repeat customers and will be replace by a more competent producer. A sanitary blunder in a processing factory can and does effect thousands. As the quantity of goods being processed goes up, the quality of the goods goes down. Don’t see a USDA sign or sticker on the premises? Go somewhere else. Why deny the choice to the consumer. It is often argued that people are too stupid or ignorant to know what’s good for them but that the government knows all. A government incapable of basic accounting and mathematical computation. Local foods have been produced, distributed and consumed locally for, literally, thousands of years. Pasteurization has only been around for 100 years. Milk is pasteurized to make contaminated milk safe to drink, which is important when transporting and handling large quantities. However, it is not necessary under sanitary conditions. I was raised on raw milk, as was my father, and my father’s father and etc. The milk always came from the family milk cow or a close neighbor, and was milked by hand. Raw milk is perfectly safe to drink if basic and logical precautions are followed. Not to say that it is fool-proof, but nothing is, and I’ll take my chances and leave everyone else free to do the same.

  • T

    The illnesses caught from non pasteurized milk are from factory farms, not organically farmed animals…people are so mislead these days. Pasteurized milk was recently tested and the garbage found was astonishing. Here are two links that make me not such a nay-sayer.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2012050/The-cocktail-20-chemicals-glass-milk.html
    http://www.alive.com/371a1a2.php?subject_bread_cramb=455

  • Doc Mudd

    A day late and a dollar short on facts there, “T”. You’re talkin’ outta your head…or sumpthin’.
    Nasty new bugs flourish on your precious little organic farms. Regular filth incubators, those.
    https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/06/minn-evidence-links-e-coli-to-raw-milk-dairy/
    http://www.marlerblog.com/case-news/minnesota-links-campylobacter-and-cryptosporidium-illnesses-to-hartmann-dairy/
    Why is it raw milkies have to make up derogatory nonsense in a futile effort to bash sensible, proven production methods? It insults our intelligence.

  • Noel

    I’m really not sure why you’re all playing the curmudgeon here.  Nowhere in this article does it say that the local residents HAVE to drink raw milk or buy local food; it’s simply saying that they CAN if they CHOOSE to do so. So you don’t want to drink raw milk. Here’s a simple solution: DON’T. Buy your milk at the grocery store instead.

    All that this ordinance does is make sure that the people who want to keep their food local are able to do so, without some meddling government agency telling them that they can’t because they haven’t paid X-amount  for some permit or license and aren’t insured for X-amount against sue-happy idiots. You’ve got a problem with a little lawyerless free-enterprise among neighbors? Sheesh. Lighten up a little.