Maine has officially withdrawn state regulatory control from 20 or more local communities that have passed so-called food sovereignty ordinances. Additional cities and towns have only to adopt such ordinances to fall under the local control act that has been signed into law by Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

Adoption, however, may be more symbolic than practical as the new law says locally produced food still has to adhere to all applicable state and federal regulations.

Maine’s new law does mark the first time local governments have been exempted from state food safety oversight. It allows local food producers in communities with food sovereignty laws to remain exempt from state licensing and inspections of food produced, sold, and consumed locally.

It does not extend to any food grown or processed for wholesale or retail distribution outside of its community of origin.

Welcome-to-Maine_406x250Two legislators are getting the credit for getting the new law through the Maine Legislature. Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, was the sponsor of bill last year that was killed by the Senate. It would have inserted a “food sovereignty” section into Maine’s state constitution.

This year, LD 725 sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was successful in recognizing the authority of towns and communities to enact ordinances regulating local food distribution free from state regulatory control.

Jackson said the new law “is definitely a big deal.” He said it will allow small producers to be more engaged in the market and free enterprise. He credited the earlier work by Sen. Hickman for helping him succeed with this year’s bill.

Food for Maine’s Future is predicting a “real groundswell” of additional towns passing food sovereignty ordinances. “This means face-to-face transitions are legal if your town has passed a food sovereignty ordinance (and) you can sell food without excessive regulations,” Food for Maine’s Future Betsy Garrold told the Bangor Daily News.

Gov. LePage said nothing when signing the new law. Nor have Maine’s food safety agencies had anything to say. It would appear that the new law would mostly impact the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Its Consumer Food Inspection unit has broad responsibilities ranging from inspecting food salvage operations to ice manufacturers.

The primary focus of the unit is to protect the consuming public by performing inspection and licensing activities ensuring that foods are packaged, processed, prepared and stored in sanitary and safe environments. Inspectors protect the consumers, while educating and working with owners of food businesses in the state in a partnership that was intended to assure consumers of a safe food supply while providing marketing assistance to small and large businesses alike.

It is also unclear how the new law might impact federal inspections carried out under contract by the state, a common practice that is expected to expand under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Maine, however, is a big win for the movement because food sovereignty has moved up to a state issue after years of being fought out in only local communities. While Maine’s law is structured to empower local communities, its underlying goals are not unlike so-called “food freedom” laws that have passed in Wyoming and North Dakota.

As for food safety, Gerrold puts her faith in the “face-to-face” transactions with neighbors that are “safe and beneficial” for both parities.

The two-section law itself takes up less than a page. The first section defines a “local food system” as a “community food system within a municipality that integrates food production, processing, consumption, direct producer-to-consumer exchanges another traditional footways to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health and well being of the municipality and its residents.”

The second section says “notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary,”  municipal governments may regulate local food systems and the state shall recognize such ordinances. Yet, it also says any food grown, produced or processed within any municipality still must comply with state and federal laws, rules and regulations.