Free our food

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 4, 2011

And that requires a distance, at least, from the agribusiness model that's shunned by eco-activists, foodies, and small farmers alike.

"The reality is that it's the fully inspected, fully licensed system that is making people sick," St. Peter says, referring to large-scale agricultural operations such as the DeCoster egg empire, which came under fire after a massive egg recall in 2010. "I'm not going to be a scapegoat for a failed industrial food system."

Constitutional commerce

On Thursday, May 5, the state judiciary committee will hear public testimony on LD 1172, "An Act To Prohibit Enforcement of Federal Laws in Violation of the Constitution of the United States." The bill invokes the Tenth Amendment in the name of food independence, looking at "what level of regulation the federal government is allowed to implement regarding trade that occurs within state borders," says John O'Donnell, a farmer who raises grass-fed beef in Monmouth, and is organizing people around this issue.

When the Food Safety Modernization Act passed, O'Donnell contacted the Tenth Amendment Center, a national think tank "that works to preserve and protect the principles of strictly limited government . . . [and] serves as a forum for the study and exploration of state and individual sovereignty issues, focusing primarily on the decentralization of federal government power as required by the Constitution." The TAC told him about their model legislation, the Intrastate Commerce Act, which deals with products that are produced and sold within state borders. LD 1172, sponsored by Republican representative Melvin Newendyke of Litchfield, adheres closely to the TAC language.

"The power to regulate intrastate commerce is reserved to the states or the people," it reads. "A person may not enforce or attempt to enforce a federal law that regulates . . . goods grown, manufactured or made in this state . . . when those goods or services are sold . . . exclusively in this state."

On issues ranging from gun laws to gay marriage, from health care to medical marijuana, there's no denying that the "states-rights" movement is gaining steam — states (and courts, in some cases) are acknowledging some limitations of federal law when faced with conflicting state statutes.

However, H. Cabanne Howard, an assistant professor of law and public policy at the University of Maine School of Law, says this particular attempt "is almost certainly unconstitutional." Interpretations of what's covered in federal commerce laws "is very broad," he says, "and includes regulation of agriculture." The Supreme Court "has been very firm about this," he adds.

O'Donnell and many of the food activists on the Blue Hill peninsula believe that LD 1172 relates directly to their food-sovereignty campaign.

"What seems consistent in these laws and regulations is that small farmers, raising livestock and other farm products sold to local consumers and within the state have seen their regulatory burdens and limitations increase dramatically," O'Donnell said in written testimony. "If not stopped, this will result in the loss of many small farmers. The state of Maine needs the Intrastate Commerce Act to establish a precedent so that we can unlock the potential of these small businesses to stimulate the economy and build a food security net for our citizens."

Deirdre Fulton can be reached,

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