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Maine Law Lets Municipalities Regulate Food


The governor of Maine has signed a food sovereignty bill. It essentially tells state regulators to keep their mitts off and let municipalities regulate food production or not. Maine Public Radio's Jennifer Mitchell has more.

JENNIFER MITCHELL, BYLINE: The new law makes it possible for farmers to sell products, such as raw milk, without going through a state inspections process. Instead, towns and cities will have the authority to regulate those kinds of sales.

HEATHER RETBERG: This bill really answers the question about who decides.

MITCHELL: That's Heather Retberg who's been working on the issue since 2009 when she was told by state inspectors that she could no longer sell her uninspected milk, cheese and yogurt. The rebuke from the state came as a surprise to Retberg as it did to many small farmers who'd failed to notice that the law governing milk distribution had changed 10 years earlier. The solution? The Retbergs turned to Maine's Constitution, which contains an amendment upholding local home rule. From this, they drafted the first ordinances declaring local control over food, which passed in a handful of towns. There was just one problem, though. The state didn't recognize municipal authority over food until now.

RETBERG: Up until now, when we've been asserting that we have the right to community self-governance over our food, the state has threatened to preempt. They've sued a farmer in a neighboring town.

MITCHELL: But now, she says, those kinds of lawsuits should stop. But not everyone is convinced the move is a good one.

JEFFREY TIMBERLAKE: We'll see how it works. You know, it's different than anything in the nation. Do I support it? No. But I didn't fight it to the end like I have in the past.

MITCHELL: Maine Republican Representative Jeff Timberlake says towns may be equipped to inspect plumbing, but they don't know anything about food safety.

TIMBERLAKE: And we're talking things that are capable of making people sick.

MITCHELL: It's a sentiment echoed by John Rebar, who heads Maine Cooperative Extension. Rebar says extension scientists regularly work with state inspectors to identify which farmers might need some training and good farm practices.

JOHN REBAR: In this kind of circumstance, the inspector is not there. So we don't have that sentry that's out there finding this issue. So hopefully, someone will come to us if they have a problem. Otherwise, we're not going to know.

CRAIG HICKMAN: This isn't really about food safety as much as it has been opposed for that reason.

MITCHELL: Democratic Representative Craig Hickman, who wanted to write food sovereignty into the Maine constitution - a measure that failed, says Maine's law is about letting people decide for themselves where they feel comfortable buying their food. Hickman, himself a farmer, credits overzealous regulation for getting him into politics in the first place after he was barred from selling homemade yogurt.

HICKMAN: I believe that some of the regulations - the one-size fits all regulations that the department wanted for a homestead of my size didn't seem fair to me or to the people in my community who wanted to buy my food. And so I came to the legislature to try to make a change. And five years later, it has happened.

MITCHELL: Currently, 20 Maine towns have adopted local food ordinances. But with a threat of state penalties no longer dangling overhead, more are expected to do so. It's not yet clear how state regulators feel about it. A spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture says they're still trying to understand what it all means. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Mitchell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Mitchell studied Music, English and Anthropology at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio. She has worked as News Director for Peninsula Public Radio in Homer, Alaska, and served as news producer in Bangor for Maine Public Radio in 2004. Most recently, she spent four years working in South Africa as a producer, as well as classical music presenter in Cape Town.

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