Healthy Milk at What Price?

Ivy Frignoca

Each year contaminated food sickens 48 million Americans and causes 3,000 deaths.  As the recent federal sequester highlights, Americans depend on programs that inspect food to ensure a safe food supply.  Unfortunately for those who run small farms in New England, the costs of complying with the confusing jumble of federal and state food safety laws can be daunting.

In Maine, nine towns — Brooksville, Sedgwick, Penobscot, Blue Hill, Trenton, Hope, Plymouth, Livermore and Appleton —have passed ordinances allowing food producers and processors to sell their goods directly to consumers without state or federal oversight, exempting them from licensing and inspection laws. These ordinances have created controversy and have landed at least one Maine farmer in court.

The legal issue arises from the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3). The clause states that Congress shall have power to regulate commerce among the several States. Congress has long used this authority to regulate the safety of food products placed into inter-state sales. The states can separately regulate food safety of products produced and sold solely within state borders. Maine’s Constitution similarly provides that state laws take precedence over local ordinances that frustrate the purpose of a state law.


Photo courtesy of Foods U chose 2 Eat, UK Website

Recently the State of Maine sued a farmer from Blue Hill Maine. The farmer had been selling unlabeled, unlicensed raw milk at his farm stand under a town ordinance, the Local Food and Community Self Governance Ordinance. Under state law, however, the farmer could not sell his milk without a license and without labeling the raw milk as unpasteurized; he also could not operate a food establishment without a license. The farmer maintained that his sales were legal under the Blue Hill ordinance, which exempts local food vendors from state licensure and inspection, provided they sell their products directly to consumers.

The court recently ruled against the farmer, finding that he was not protected under the Blue Hill ordinance.  The court reasoned that state dairy law pre-empted the local ordinance because the state laws in question were clearly designed to protect consumers from illness caused by improperly handled or unpasteurized milk.  The court wrote that: “It is axiomatic that a municipality may only add to the requirements of the statute, it may not take away from those requirements unless permitted to do so otherwise.”

The court’s ruling makes sense in terms of following constitutional law principles and the existing food safety legal regime. The bigger policy issue not addressed by the legal decision is whether the current food safety regulatory structure is one that prices small scale farmers focused on local markets out of  business. We think this is an important issue to address and are actively working on it as part of CLF’s Farm and Food Initiative.

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