Maine’s new food sovereignty law means neighbors can sell each other raw milk

As towns take a crack at regulating their own food, legislators say neighborly trust is the only safety assurance Mainers need.

With a libertarian flourish of the pen, Maine’s governor Paul LePage signed the nation’s first food sovereignty bill into law this week. Now, if a Maine town wants to allow raw milk sales, or give license to a coterie of home jerky and granola artisans, it has that right.

To democratic state Sen. Troy Jackson, a logger from the state’s northern reaches who sponsored the bill, it’s a welcome return to the Maine of yore. “Years and years ago, this is how people in Maine traded goods and services with each other,” he says. “But with all the requirements government puts on you now, it’s become far too costly and onerous to do business. Many people were pushed into the shadows, almost the black market.”

They know you, you know them and, frankly, poisoning your neighbors is a very bad business plan.”

The notion of food sovereignty runs parallel to legislation like California’s proposed “Homemade Food Legislation Act”, wherein restrictions would ease for home food producers who want to hawk their wares locally. The basic intent of both laws is to ease financial and regulatory burdens on the little guys. But in Maine, it’s also about giving local municipalities some regulatory say-so.

Even before LePage signed the legislation, which passed unanimously in the state Senate, 20 Maine municipalities had signed their own sovereignty ordinances. But without the state’s buy-in, these communities couldn’t do much to prevent government regulators from overriding them. Now these places—and what is sure to be many other cities and towns—can create the rules for their own local food economies, without censure.

Of course, the main reason food producers of any size are regulated is to ensure consumer safety. On some level, Maine’s new legislation lets consumers in sovereign communities make their own evaluations on whether food is safe (aka buyer beware).

“I tell them that you just have to fight sometimes. You’re not always going to win, but at least you fought.”

But according to Betsy Garrold, acting executive director of Food for Maine’s Future, commerce on a local scale largely hinges on trust. “We believe face-to-face transactions with your neighbors is safe and beneficial to both parties,” she told the Bangor Daily News. “They know you, you know them and, frankly, poisoning your neighbors is a very bad business plan.”

To be clear, Maine’s new legislation does not pertain to food produced anywhere outside a local area. Food produced for wholesale or retail distribution outside its home municipality is subject to more than local regulation. So it’s not as if the town of Canton (the most recent Maine town to pass a sovereignty ordinance) can now just say, “Tyson seems like a legit company, so there’s no need to regulate their chicken.” But for a previously unlicensed Canton chicken farmer selling only to his neighbors, the commerce doors are now wide open.

For his part, Jackson sees this legislation as very fitting for Maine’s state character. He compares it to legislation he sponsored a couple years ago, allowing Mainers to purchase prescription meds from Canada (a country he can see out his window, for the record). “Big Pharma has Congress wrapped around its finger, but that doesn’t do a darn thing for the people I care about,” he says.

That drug law was eventually overturned by a federal judge, in what Jackson sees as a victory for pharmaceutical lobbyists. Similarly, he wonders if the federal government might intervene with this new food sovereignty legislation. It’s a risk he’s willing to weather, though. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Are [the feds] going to allow this?’” he says. “I tell them that you just have to fight sometimes. You’re not always going to win, but at least you fought.”

Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.