If passed, amendments to Maine's food sovereignty act will make it easier to sell home grown and processed food in the state without a license. Credit: Dan Little / BDN

Supporters of legislation to amend Maine’s food sovereignty act say the new language will make the state’s local food economy stronger by increasing opportunities for unlicensed home-based food businesses, but not everyone is on board with the change.

Opponents, who include Maine food industry and farming groups, feel the amendment will unnecessarily weaken regulations aimed at keeping unsafe food from finding its way into consumers hands.

The bill, LD 574 — An Act to Clarify the Maine Food Sovereignty Act — is sponsored by Rep. William Pluecker, D-Warren. It would allow small, unlicensed food producers who live in municipalities where food sovereignty ordinances have been passed to sell their food items directly to customers at a mutually agreed upon location and manner in addition to where the food is grown or processed. LD574 also includes language that clears up any confusion over the state’s requirement to recognize those local ordinances.

Presently, the Maine Food Sovereignty Act, enacted into law in 2017, gives Maine’s towns, villages and cities the right to allow small producers of food products to sell directly to customers at the location where the item is made. Meat and poultry items are excluded from food sovereignty ordinances. A separate proposed bill, LD 954, would extend the power to adopt food sovereignty ordinances to county governments.

On May 13, the Legislative Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry voted to send LD 574 onto the House floor, but was far from unanimous in its support. Despite only a minority of committee members favoring his bill, Pluecker said it can still become law if it gets enough votes when the full Legislature acts on it, likely in June.

“Right now the majority of the [Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry] committee is saying it ought not to pass,” Pluecker said. “But we have done an amazing job growing our local food economy in Maine and food sovereignty has been key to that and I believe I will have the support for my legislation.”

More harm than good

Opponents of LD 574 — such as Mark Guzzi of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, president of the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets Board of Directors — say that they support a strong local food system but worry the new legislation will harm the farmers market economy in Maine.

“I think there is a lot of value for an individual to be familiar with the way food is produced and to know if it has been produced in a facility that does or does not meet food safety rules,” Guzzi said. “By limiting the site of sale to the site of production, you are allowing consumers to have a better understanding of where and how that food is produced [when the purveyor is unlicensed].”

If growers or producers are allowed to sell their unlicensed items wherever they want, Guzzi said, the consumer has no way of knowing under what conditions they were prepared because the preparation location is no longer the point of sale. State licencing ensures that conditions meet certain standards for safety, he said. It’s also where the food sovereignty act harms the local food movement.

Heather Donahue of Balfour Farms in Pittsfield agrees.

“I can go to their place of production and look at what is going on, pick things up, meet the farmer or producer and that allows me to be the inspector,” Donahue said. “When you start selling to anybody anywhere, you have broken that ability for the consumer to judge the safety for themselves.”

That is why she opposes LD 574 and feels the point of sale language for unlicensed food purveyors who operate under food sovereignty ordinances must not be amended.

For some, there’s a concern that the food sovereignty movement in general in Maine is more about demonizing the state government as “big brother” than promoting local food producers. Eric Rector, owner of Monroe Cheese Studio and past president of the Maine Cheese Guild, is among them.

“In terms of processed foods like jams or jellies, the state is helping you make and provide a safe product,” Rector said. “If you have questions or run into problems they are there to help you and this is not ‘big brother,’ it’s the best system to foster the best food [and] food sovereignty is undoing that.”

There is also concern that passage of LD 574 will harm Maine’s farmers market economy by paving the way for non-licensed food vendors to sell at markets. According to Pluecker, farmers markets in Maine can require vendors to be state licensed and inspected, even in food sovereign municipalities. Language he added last week to LD 574 specifically reaffirms a market’s right to set its own rules and guidelines for who can sell there.

Guzzi is not confident that’s enough.

“Can we regulate our own markets? Sure,” he said. “But how we regulate is a mutual agreement among the vendors and there are people who, for their own self interest or variety of other reasons, will push to the margins of what is allowed.”

Expanding traditional food systems

For supporters though, the changes that would come with passage of LD 574 would take Maine a step further in preserving and expanding traditional community-based food systems.

Longtime Maine food sovereignty advocate Heather Retberg, who operates Quills End Farm in Penobscot with her husband, said concerns about safety are unfounded. There is no data that supports the argument that unregulated locally produced food items have caused any foodborne illnesses in Maine, she said.

Retberg believes that small farmers are more than capable of producing safe food.

“I care about the people we feed [and] I care about the relationships cultivated by this very intimate form of exchanging food,” Retberg said. “I care about nourishing both deeply, and by definition that means working hard to ensure food safety every single day.”

State government has no place in the small, local food economy, according to LD 574 supporter Roxanne Bruce of The Tiny Farmer’s Farm in Ludlow.

“Farms should be allowed to celebrate the harvest and charge customers a fee for participating in the meal without fear of legal repercussions,” Bruce said.

The cost of licensure

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry charges a $25 annual fee for a food safety license. It’s a cost that Rector said is affordable and pays for itself many times over with the services and resources provided by the state.

But supporters of food sovereignty will say that the costs of bringing kitchens and food preparation areas up to state standards required for licensing can be very expensive.

Rector disagrees and points to his own creamery which he designed and built according to state food safety standards for $1,000 in 2006. He said he did so through careful planning and buying used equipment when he could.

Not everyone can afford to take a $1,000 gamble on a food-based business though, Bruce said. The ability to prepare and sell small test batches of food, she said, is one of the major advantages of living in a food sovereign municipality.

“I don’t know if my sauce mix is going to be a hit or not,” she said. “But with food sovereignty I can make 10 or 20 jars and test selling them in my community before I roll out the large expenses of equipment and supplies.”

Building the local food economy

Both sides agree that the local food economy can and should keep growing. They just don’t see eye to eye on how that should happen.

Rather than promoting food sovereignty, Rector said supporters of local food production should instead focus on encouraging young people to enter into farming and giving them all the assistance they need to be successful. He also feels every effort must also be made to make sure farmland in Maine remains farmland.

Central to those efforts, Rector said, is working with the state and its food safety regulations.

But others see it differently. Food sovereignty, and the proposed amendments to the act in no way harm Maine’s local food movement, Retberg said, if anything, they further it. She pointed out that more than 226,000 people currently live in what she calls food sovereign zones among the 87 municipalities with food sovereignty ordinances. She anticipates other communities joining them moving forward.

“We need to amplify our community food production because the stronger Maine’s food economy is, the less vulnerable we will be to outside influences beyond our control,” Retberg said. “More people recognize that our food infracture and food sovereignty need to go hand in hand.”

Correction: A previous version of this story omitted language specifying LD574’s language on point of sale; misidentified language regarding extending the power to adopt food sovereignty ordinances to county governments which govern Maine’s 41 unorganized territories; incorrectly stated the number of people living in a food sovereign zone; and misspelled Mark Guzzi and Heather Donahue’s names.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.