What a federal takeover of Maine’s meat and poultry inspection program would look like

Maine, its farms and food producers could face an onslaught of federal inspectors unless the Legislature agrees to significant amendments to its first-in-the-country food sovereignty bill, which goes into effect Nov. 1.

On Wednesday, the Bangor Daily News reported that Gov. Paul LePage has told legislative leaders that he will call an emergency session of the full Legislature to alter the law and deal with some other fiscal issues. Lawmakers already had tentative plans to convene for at least two other pressing matters: Implementing an omnibus recreational marijuana law that’s been under development for months and dealing with a ranked-choice voting system, portions of which prompted constitutional concerns for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court after voters passed it in 2016.

The initial reaction of Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who sponsored the food sovereignty bill, was shock but he told the BDN he’ll reserve judgment until he learns more about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s objections. According to a July letter from the USDA, states must maintain food inspection programs for meat and poultry that are “at least equal to” what the federal government requires.

The governmental uproar over Maine’s new first-in-the-nation law appears limited to meat and poultry, apparently leaving dairy products and practices such as the sale of raw milk alone.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows states to run their own livestock and poultry programs but will step in if it suspects that a state is not enforcing regulations at “all establishments within its jurisdiction,” according to a memo provided to the LePage administration that outlines that process. It would look like this:

  • The U.S. agriculture secretary would notify the governor that Maine has been put in “designated” status, which begins a path toward termination of the state’s monitoring and inspection programs. That means all establishments in Maine where livestock and poultry are slaughtered or processed would be transferred to federal oversight.
  • The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would publish a notice in the Federal Register to notify the public that state-inspected establishments would be put under federal inspection within 30 days.
  • Federal funding for the state meat and poultry inspection programs would be terminated.
  • Federal inspectors would visit all meat and poultry processing locations to see if they are interested in federal inspections and to document any deficiencies. The facilities would have a maximum of two chances within a 30-day window to comply with federal regulatory requirements. If they failed to do so, they would be referred to the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s legal division. 
  • Part of the process is that the Department of Agriculture would allow state inspectors to apply for a federal position.

No date has been set for a special legislative session.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.