Food sovereignty goes to court

Removing local control
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 11, 2012

The state is pursuing a lawsuit against a Blue Hill farmer that could have "a chilling effect on Maine's growing local food movement and the promise of real economic development in our rural communities," according to the Downeast activist organization Food for Maine's Future.

This Thursday, at Maine's annual Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta, representatives of Food for Maine's Future's "Local Food Local Rules" effort will present a petition to Governor Paul LePage, calling on his administration to drop the controversial lawsuit against Dan Brown, who is accused of distributing and selling unlicensed and unpasteurized (raw) milk and food products from his farmstand at Gravelwood Farm, as well as at several local farmers' markets.

The Local Food Local Rules folks say that the lawsuit, filed in November after state inspectors found Brown's products to be in violation of the state standard for milk and milk products (his milk and cottage cheese allegedly had bacteria counts 10 to 15 times higher than the limit), flies in the face of so-called food sovereignty ordinances passed in five Maine towns last year. Those documents pronounce local independence from state and federal regulations (see "Free our Food," by Deirdre Fulton, May 6, 2011), while promoting more traditional food exchanges, direct from farmer to consumer.

"Producers or processors of local foods in the Town of Blue Hill are exempt from licensure and inspection provided that the transaction is only between the producer or processor and a patron when the food is sold for home consumption," reads the ordinance in Dan Brown's town.

"The state has completely disregarded the Local Food and Community Self Governance Ordinance that passed in the town of Blue Hill last April and disregarded local control of food production, self-determination, and the will of the people of five towns," says Heather Retberg, of Quill's End Farm in Penobscot, who plans to help deliver the petition to LePage on Thursday. "It means that the state is sending a message to farmers in all our towns: Beware of farming without a license."

But from the beginning, the state Department of Agriculture maintained that such small-town ordinances are superceded by Maine law, and that testing and inspection would continue as usual. "Persons who fail to comply will be subject to enforcement," ag commissioner Walter Whitcomb said in a letter to local officials last April.

Whitcomb, himself a dairy farmer, claims that the state goes out of its way "to assist people who are raw milk producers," in Maine, lowering the costs of fees and testing.

He points out that the federal Food and Drug Administration strongly opposes raw milk, and Maine is lucky to be able to work with such farmers in the first place. "The FDA has the expectation that we will take care of safety issues," he says. "If they had their druthers they wouldn't have raw milk in the state at all."

It's clear that Whitcomb has sympathy for local producers who want to buck state-licensing requirements — at one point, he half-jokingly suggests that the state offer a grant so all can comply, rather than waste much larger sums of money on lawyers' fees. (Brown's case is being defended by lawyers from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund.) But he adds that "for every one who is making an issue of this, there are 10 who have made an investment and are going by the rules." He suggests that Brown, who was selling his raw milk products even before the Blue Hill ordinance was passed, is merely serving as a political poster-boy for the food-sovereignty movement.

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