Kenduskeag residents will decide next week whether to allow farmers and other small-scale food producers to bypass food inspection requirements so they can more easily sell their goods directly to customers.
The Penobscot County town would join a number of Maine towns that have also passed rules eschewing state food safety rules to promote local agriculture as part of a growing food sovereignty movement in the state. Under a 2017 law, local governments can regulate small food producers who sell directly to customers.
The Kenduskeag measure would exempt food producers and processors from needing to obtain licenses or be inspected by safety officials when selling directly to customers for home consumption.
The ordinance would apply to those who sell directly to consumers without first going through retailers, including those who sell at farmers markets, roadside stands and community events, or deliver products directly to their customers, according to a copy of the proposed ordinance. The ordinance would also apply to sales that happen at the farm properties where the food is produced.
Proponents have billed the measure as a way to help small, local agricultural operations and small businesses so they can sell directly to consumers without having to comply with state food regulations.
Cat Morrow, a Kenduskeag resident who spearheaded the ordinance, said its passage would remove the burden on small homesteaders and farmers who struggle to pay all the fees associated with complying with food inspection rules.
“We want to help the little guy not drown,” she said, pointing out that food inspections require an initial $50 fee as well as water tests and other requirements that can be onerous for small-scale businesses.
“There are all these different tests, and it’s like, I really just want to sell my neighbors pancake mix,” Morrow said. “At the end of the day, that cost gets put into every product that you sell, and then your cost goes up if you’re trying to stay in business.”
Uninspected food would need to be labeled as such, Morrow said, so customers could make informed decisions about the products they’re buying.
In addition, Kenduskeag encourages food processors or producers who want their home kitchen or farm to be inspected to continue doing so.
I“If a farm or dairy is more comfortable with state regulations, they are still very much welcomed to continue to function how they are currently operating,” the town said in a Facebook post about the ordinance.
The food sovereignty movement has gained momentum in Maine in recent years.
The Maine Food Sovereignty Act, which passed in 2017, lets local governments regulate small food producers who sell directly to consumers. A separate bill pending in the Maine Legislature would amend that law to allow producers to sell to customers at a location away from where the food is produced.
If Kenduskeag voters approve the proposed ordinance on Tuesday, the town would join localities such as Penobscot, Blue Hill, Hope and Plymouth, that have passed rules allowing small businesses to eschew state food safety regulations at the local level.
Opponents say that flouting statewide regulations removes consumers’ rights to know under what conditions their food was made and paves the way for unlicensed food vendors to compete with farmers who must comply with regulations to sell at markets.