by John P. Thomas
Health Impact News
There is nothing more basic to our physical health and longevity than the quality of the food we eat. Even the functioning of our minds is directly influenced by what we eat and drink.
Those of us who understand this reality place great emphasis on being free to buy the foods of our choice from the sources of our choice without interference by government regulators.
What is “Food Freedom?”
Selecting food and consuming food based on personal preference is the key principle at the heart of the food freedom movement.
However, our access to quality food is increasingly being limited by state and federal regulations. The lobbying efforts of Big Ag, Big Chem, mega food processors, mega food retailers, and other well-funded marketing entities, are working to repress our rights to purchase the food of our choice. They exert their influence in the U.S. Congress, in federal agencies, in state legislatures, and in the state agencies that are in charge of public health and agriculture.
Those who believe in food freedom contend that consumers should have the right to buy locally produced food from whomever they wish whether or not the food producer is inspected, licensed, or otherwise regulated by federal or state officials.
Corporation lobbyist and state regulators insist that such freedom is dangerous and that the government must protect the population from food related illness and death.
Several states have been in the forefront of what is unfolding as the “food freedom movement.” These states include: Maine, Wyoming, and North Dakota.
Those engaged in the process of establishing food freedom laws are not saying that we should eliminate food inspection programs. On the contrary, they believe such laws are needed for food produced by large corporations.
Their concern involves locally produced food that is sold locally. This is the kind of food that a family farm produces or the kind of food prepared in a home kitchen. This is food that is produced and sold directly to people in the local community.
It is about one neighbor having the freedom to sell food to another neighbor.
This article will examine the food freedom movement and will consider whether the allegations of corporate interests are valid. Should we be free to buy and sell food directly from our neighbors, or will such practices kill us?
I am not being overly dramatic with my language here. Allegations against local food freedom advocates are highly charged with emotional rhetoric, and warn of inescapable illness and death.
Fundamental Questions at the Heart of the Food Freedom Movement
Why should we be concerned about food freedom? Does it harm anyone? Why should we be free to buy locally produced food? Why is the existing system of food inspection simply not appropriate for controlling the activities of family farms in America? Finally, if food freedom is a good idea, then how can we implement food freedom laws in our states?
I recently interviewed four food freedom experts. I will be sharing their remarks throughout this article and will let them answer these questions for us.
Locally Produced Food has a Safe Track Record
Peter Kennedy, an attorney with the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, summarizes the battle for food freedom. He and the other board members of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FCLDF) are working to defend the rights and broaden the freedoms of family farms. The FCLDF is working hard to protect consumer access to raw milk and nutrient dense foods.
According to the other food freedom advocates I interviewed, the guidance of Peter Kennedy has been extremely important to their efforts. In my interview with Peter Kennedy, he stated:
I think locally produced food, [whether] regulated or unregulated, has a better track record for safety than food coming out of the industrial system.
A lot of the imported food coming in [to the US] today isn’t regulated — it is coming from five to 10 thousand miles away. …
[Most] regulations are geared toward the industrial system. They are not as well suited for local food.
I think the best regulations for local and direct producer to consumer interactions — is no regulation. 
Food freedom advocates such as Peter Kennedy are describing old-fashion food commerce.
A hundred or more years ago, people had food freedom. They bought and sold food to one another without regulation.
Despite what the current generation of government officials believe, our great-great-grandparents were intelligent. If they bought food from a neighbor and they got sick, then they would discuss the matter with their neighbor or would simply stop buying food from that person.
Are we so stupid today that we can’t make our own decisions about food safety without government interference? Should we be so suspicious of our local farmers and food producers that we shouldn’t trust them to sell us clean and uncontaminated food?
Definition of Food Freedom
LeAnn Harner, a dairy goat farmer from North Dakota, gave me her perspective on food freedom when I interviewed her for this article. She was one of the key advocates who encouraged the state legislature to pass a food freedom law in her state this year. The law will go into effect on August 1, 2017.
LeAnn Harner described what food freedom means to her. She stated:
To me it means that producers and consumers have the right to freely exchange anything that they make without the government interfering.
You also have the responsibility on both sides to properly handle that food, to provide complete disclosure, and to properly care for that food.
If I as a consumer go to a farmer’s market, I don’t buy milk and eggs and meat, and then leave it in a hot car for a couple hours while I decide to see a movie. I get my food into a cooler and make sure the food is in a cool place, and I get it home as soon as possible. Safe handling, safe transport, and of course proper reheating are all important. 
The Agenda of Those Who Oppose Food Freedom
Food related corporations, federal regulators, and state level agriculture and health department officials, want us to be suspicious of our neighbors. They want us to doubt our own intelligence and ability to discern food quality. They want to scare us away from farmers markets and to convince us that we should spend all of our food dollars in warehouse size grocery stores that are the primary distribution system for their food. They don’t want to see dollars circulating at the local level.
In the state of Wyoming, for example, it was estimated in 2015 that 98% of the food sold in Wyoming was brought into the state. 
I asked Peter Kennedy about the strategies we can use to speak out against the message and the agenda of these groups. He summarized the matter quite simply. He stated:
I think one way is to expose their real agenda, which is to suppress competition under the guise of food safety and health regulations.
Aren’t the groups who speak out against food freedom just trying to protect us? Aren’t food regulations necessary to keep us safe from food related illness?
Comprehensive Food Regulation is a Belief System and a Way of Life for Bureaucrats
Nearly 40 years ago, when I was being indoctrinated into the public health belief system in graduate school, I was convinced that food regulations and inspections were saving thousands of lives every year.
I didn’t doubt that milk should be pasteurized and meat had to be processed by government sanctioned processing facilities to ensure that it was safe.
I now know that pasteurization simply covers up sloppy unsanitary milk production, and commercial fresh meats are commonly contaminated with fecal matter and bacteria despite the presence of onsite FDA inspectors.
Since then, I have come to realize that the one-size regulation system is simply not appropriate for all types of food production and distribution. The scale of food production and the method of food sales must be taken into account in order to establish meaningful regulations, and as Peter Kennedy noted, the best regulation in some cases is “no regulation.”
As imperfect as food inspections might be, these inspections have their place when it comes to factory style farming operations, industrial size animal processing centers, and huge food processing and manufacturing facilities.
I can’t imagine what would happen if these corporations were free from oversight.
However, the regulations that address these types of operations are poorly suited for food production and preparation that takes place on a small family farm or in a home kitchen.
We Didn’t Always have Food Regulations
Believe it or not, people safely raised and processed food and sold it to their friends and neighbors for thousands of years without anyone looking over their shoulders and saying “you are approved to sell food.” These local farm-to-consumer sales were the backbone of the local economy throughout the world.
The freedom we once had to sell food raised on our farms or prepared in our own kitchens has slowly been eroding over the last century. It wasn’t that long ago that people could freely buy and sell food in their local communities without passing through the hoop of state or federal regulations.
When I interviewed Heather Retberg, a farmer and food freedom advocate from Maine, she described how food freedom functions in her community.
She and her husband have a 105-acre grass-based farm where they raise dairy cows, goats, laying hens, meat chickens, and pigs. They also produce value-added products such as cheese and yogurt. She stated:
I live in a town of about 1,200 people. We really still operate in very many ways on handshake integrity, and on direct feedback loops and accountability. If there is any type of quality issue with anything that we are doing at our farm, then our customers come right down our driveway. They stand in my kitchen while I package their cheese. They feel very open about telling me if there is an issue that needs to be addressed, and then we can address it very quickly and directly.
In general, our farming community is one of high integrity. No one starts selling food without knowing what they are doing and educating themselves about food safety. I don’t think anyone cares more about food safety than farmers and small food producers.
When they talk about food safety in the state capitol, they are talking about stainless steel, the number of drains you have, and making sure you have three sinks and not two. When we are thinking about food safety we are thinking about animal husbandry that begins with tending the soil to make sure our soils are biologically active and are going to be growing healthy food for the animals, which in turn will be healthy [for us]. 
Food Safety Laws at the Local Level Promote Extreme Dysfunction
Let me give you a personal example of how state food safety regulations have reached the point of ridiculousness.
My wife and I were shopping at a local farmers market several years ago. My wife and another shopper both laid their eyes on a giant head of cauliflower. They started talking about how beautiful it was – freshly picked pristine white and nearly a foot in diameter.
They both wanted to buy it, but both women realized that it was bigger than they could use. The farmer who grew the cauliflower said:
“Well you could buy it together and then cut it in half.” She then added, “I have a knife that you can use, but I can’t cut it for you, because of regulations. If I cut it, then I would be selling processed food and I am not licensed to do that.”
While the three women worked out the purchase and division of the cauliflower, I pondered the silliness of what I just heard. A farmer can’t take a knife and cut a raw vegetable in half because some well-meaning bureaucrat believes such a practice would endanger the health of consumers.
I am sure that the farmer was not misinformed, because she was the farmer’s market coordinator.
The ability to cut a cauliflower in half and sell it to two customers without playing games like I just described strikes at the heart of food freedom. It is about buying and selling food in our local communities without state or federal rules and regulation.
Food Regulations Don’t Prevent Catastrophic Food Poisoning and Death
Rules and regulations are desirable and necessary for factory produced food, which is the source of most foodborne illness. If you need to be convinced of this point, then I refer you to the following articles. Even with the existing complex set of federal and state regulations, illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths are not prevented.
Home Produced Food is Rarely Contaminated
In contrast to massive food contamination involving millions of pounds of food, locally produced food is rarely contaminated. Even food made in uninspected home kitchens and sold to the public is almost never a problem.
Heather Retberg gave this response when I asked her whether there have been any cases of food-related illnesses or deaths reported to the state of Maine as a result of the Food Sovereignty ordinances that have been adopted by 18 of its towns. She stated:
NO. And this is the question that we were asking the department.
That is also one of the questions that a legislator asked the head of the department during the most recent public hearings. He was specifically asking if there had been any illnesses or deaths reported from raw milk in the state of Maine, and there hadn’t been. That was the departments own admission.
We do have, if you want to call it that, a 6-year track record in all of these communities which have passed these ordinances. We continue to exchange the food the way we always have, and of course, nothing has come up.
LeAnn Harner explained how the food freedom initiative in North Dakota handled the concerns about potential food poisoning. She stated:
We went back through 27 years of foodborne illness in the state, those were the ones that were available on the department of health website.
We looked at the incidences where there was foodborne illness that they thought was based in a home.
Of course, most of those cases they report never definitively determine a source — they just have suspect foods. I think there was one case where home baked goods were a problem.
And we just pointed this out to legislators. We said, look, this really isn’t much of an issue. We all go to school bake sales. We go to church functions where food was made in the home, and we just don’t have outbreaks of foodborne illness.
At some point, common sense has to prevail. This [message] really gets out with the legislature.
Opponents of Food Freedom Use Fear to Manipulate the Public
Those who oppose food sovereignty are promoting an agenda of fear. They are basically saying, “Watch out! Locally produced food is dangerous!”
I asked Betsy Garrold, a professional political activist from Maine, who is one of the key leaders in Maine’s food freedom/sovereignty movement, to respond to this type of warning. She stated:
That’s what all the argument is about. If we let small farmers feed their neighbors they are going to kill them all with food poisoning. That’s what they keep saying.
I got rather snippy with my testimony [to the Maine legislative committee] this year. I called it slanderous to say that small farmers would poison their neighbors. 
Maine is Working on Food Freedom from the Bottom Up
In Maine, the food freedom movement truly began  at the local level.
The dominant political structure in most of Maine is local town government. County government plays a limited role in managing the rules by which people live.
There is a very different form of local decision making in Maine. In the small towns of Maine, all of the adults gather once a year in a town meeting to discuss and adopt the town budget and to make rules for the people of the town. This is possible because many towns only have 500 to 2,000 residents. Government is truly by the people for the people.
It was in this context that Maine’s food freedom movement was born. In the towns which pursued food freedom, they used the term food sovereignty  to describe the rights they established for their communities.
Maine is also somewhat unique in that it has what is known as a home rule amendment to the state constitution. The home rule amendment establishes a legal framework through which Mainers can exercise the right to make their own rules for their towns without state legislative approval.
In an article published by the Portland Press Herald, the author describes the unique nature of the attitudes and organization of town government in Maine. The article stated:
Mainers, reformers have often discovered, are as committed to local control as they are to frugal, effective governance. … Leave New England and certain swaths of the country settled by New Englanders, and you will find the country is not divided up into towns as we understand them here.
Instead, a “town” or “city” is a compact incorporated area, a clump of self-governance usually floating in a vast unincorporated sea that doesn’t belong to a municipality at all. 
In Maine, town government exercises the same level of control over life in the community as we would see in large cities or in county government elsewhere in the United States. The difference is that all property owners have the right to vote on every matter that affects the town during an annual town meeting.
The Portland Press Herald article went on to describe an attitude that is common among Mainers. They stated:
New Englanders didn’t fear their government because, in a very real sense, they were the government.
After the American Revolution, strong local government took on new importance. Many Americans shared Thomas Jefferson’s fears that the new republic would be destroyed from within, that a homegrown aristocracy would spring up to replace the one the revolution had just overthrown. Jefferson argued that the best way to avoid tyranny was to devolve as much power as possible to local communities, and that the most resilient democracy would be a network of small towns wherein people were self-employed producers – farmers, fishermen and tradesmen – and inherited privilege, by wealth or birth, was not to be tolerated.
Jefferson made his arguments from the Virginia Tidewater, a region with an aristocratic tradition and an almost total absence of towns, self-governing or otherwise.
Although New Englanders were opposed to his political party, Jefferson extolled the virtues of their town meeting system, calling it “the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation.” 
Using Home Rule to Claim Food Freedom
A town in Maine cannot use the home rule to enact ordinances that are specifically prohibited by the state of Maine.
However, the state of Maine passes many laws that cover matters that are of direct concern to its towns, and the simple existence of a law does not prevent the town from doing what its citizens believe is best for the town. 
The state of Maine has laws and regulations governing food inspection. However, 18 towns have determined that it is in their best interest to adopt food sovereignty ordinances that provide what they believe to be a better way of managing the direct sale of food between food consumers and food producers.
I asked Betsy Garrold to describe what happens when a town in Maine passes the food sovereignty ordinance. She stated:
If a town passes the ordinance, they get a letter from the Maine Municipal Association and the state of Maine that basically says this isn’t legal, and all of the towns have chosen to ignore those letters.
I don’t foresee the Agriculture Department ever suing a town, though they might decide to sue another [local food] producer, especially because of the way the Maine Supreme Court ruled in the Dan Brown case .  I think they know they don’t really have a leg to stand on. So, in the 18 towns people are selling food among themselves with no interference.
Why Does the State of Maine Resist Food Freedom at the State Level?
Betsy Garrold gave additional information about resistance from the state of Maine. She stated:
The reason that the department of agriculture fights food sovereignty so hard is that a lot of their funding, especially the funding for their food testing laboratory, comes straight from the feds. And if they don’t do what the feds tell them, they are going to lose their funding, and they can’t afford it because they can’t afford this 3-million-dollar lab. Or they think they can’t.
Food Sovereignty leaders in Maine have not yet achieved the goal of passing a statewide food freedom law.
However, the Maine Legislature passed a food sovereignty bill in early June 2017 (LD 725) and it was signed by the governor on June 16th.
The new law ‘An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems’ provides that ‘…A municipal government may regulate by ordinance local food systems, and the State shall recognize such ordinances.
An ordinance adopted by a municipality pursuant to this section must apply only to food or food products that are grown, produced or processed by individuals within that municipality who sell directly to consumers.
Any food or food products grown, produced or processed in the municipality intended for wholesale or retail distribution outside of the municipality must be grown, produced or processed in compliance with all applicable state and federal laws, rules and regulations.’ 
Food Freedom From the Top Down
The strategy that most states will need to follow to provide food freedom for their residents will involve passing new state laws. Wyoming and North Dakota both passed food freedom laws in 2017. They are leading the nation in the passage of statewide food freedom legislation.
In Wyoming, the recent passage of the new law culminates a multi-year process of systematically establishing food freedom in each of the key areas of food freedom.
In North Dakota, consumers and producers are thrilled about the food freedom law that will go into effect on August 1, 2017. They anticipate taking a close look at the law in future years to see how it can be improved and expanded. At the present time, they will be teaching local food producers and consumers to take advantage of the provisions in their new food freedom law, which is a major step forward for food freedom.
Additional Information about Statewide Food Freedom Laws in North Dakota
(This website should be updated by the end of June 2017 to provide all the information needed to participate in North Dakota food freedom.)
Documentaries about the Success of Wyoming Food Freedom
(A great 2-part documentary about food freedom.)
(Food freedom part 2.)
Steps for Establishing Food Freedom Laws
In my interview with Peter Kennedy from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, he discussed various aspects of food freedom.
He recommends that advocates for food freedom work with their state legislatures to systematically establish food freedom laws.
He suggests that we think of this as a multi-year project.
The food freedom steps described in the following list range from those that may be more easily passed in the legislature to those that may take more work to pass. This is a process, because there will be resistance and concern about endangering human life. When it is shown that the first stages of food freedom prove not to be harmful, then the stage will be set for going further.
I will summarize the basic steps that Peter Kennedy described to me during my interview, and add some additional remarks to further explain them. My comments will be in brackets [My Comment].
- Food not Subject to Time and Temperature: There are cottage food laws in close to 90% of the states, which allow foods that are called “not subject to time and temperature control” to be sold without regulation. This includes anything like pickles and sauerkraut, etc. [This type of food freedom law is the basic beginning point. It says that food that doesn’t need careful handling/storage and that has a long shelf life can be sold freely.]
- Poultry: There are minimal federal standards that you have to meet if you are processing less than 1,000 birds per year on the farm. There is also a 20,000 bird exemption, which could be adopted. There is more regulation here, but this is still a great opportunity to make a living. [This means that food freedom legislation can make it acceptable for farmers to slaughter their own birds on the farm and sell them directly to consumers.]
- Raw Milk and Raw Milk Products: The states are free to make their own laws in this area. A number of states allow the direct sale of raw milk without regulation. Raw milk products probably have a better track record for food safety, and laws can be passed allowing those sales. [This is a step beyond herd-share laws where people establish partial ownership in a dairy animal in exchange for obtaining milk from the animal. Food freedom in this area would involve purchasing milk or other dairy products from farmers without having an ownership in the herd.]
- On-Farm Slaughter: States can allow custom slaughter on the farm by a farmer for an unlimited number of animal owners. This is another way to keep the food dollar more local. [Several people would purchase an animal such as a steer, pig, or lamb, and the farmer would slaughter it, process, and package it for the purchasers.]
- Final Step: The final way to keep the food dollar local is to allow unregulated sales of all foods that are subject to time and temperature control, with the exception of meat, which is federally regulated. [This establishes food freedom in its complete form. This means that food requiring refrigeration and careful handling can be freely sold. It is almost as free as what existed 120-years ago when people were completely free to buy and sell food without regulations.]
For additional information about passing food freedom laws in your state, please visit:
(Defending the rights and broadening the freedoms of family farms and protecting consumer access to raw milk and nutrient-dense foods.)
The website has a map showing the states that have raw milk laws and those with on-farm poultry processing laws. It will soon have a map of states with on-farm slaughter laws for large meat animals.
The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund is a grassroots membership organization. The membership includes unlimited consultations. An individual consumer membership is $50. They are ready to provide consultation to those who are trying to pass food freedom laws in their states.
Food Freedom Podcast
I prepared a podcast with comments from LeAnn Harner, Heather Retberg, and Betsy Garrold.
Their remarks contain valuable information about their experiences in promoting food freedom in North Dakota and in Maine.
LeAnn Harner provides an overview of food freedom and a highly informative discussion of how to work with the legislative process.
Heather Retberg describes the origin of food sovereignty in Maine and how food quality is kept high by Maine farmers.
Betsy Garold discusses several topics including opposition from state regulatory officials and the non-partisan nature of the food freedom movement.
Conclusion: Food Freedom Laws Needed to Rebuild Economic Prosperity – Reestablish Relationships between Local Food Producers and Local Consumers
Those of us who seek to restore the old-fashioned practices of food production and distribution in our local communities are concerned about food safety.
We are not anti-regulation – we are instead pro-common-sense when it comes to food that is produced and sold locally.
We are simply seeking to restore a way of life that has successfully promoted economic vitality, physical health, and a sense of community and belonging that used to characterize America.
Such a way of life has been stripped away by mega size grocery stores, corporate dominated agriculture and food processing, and by over-reaching food regulations.
The combined effect of these factors is destroying small locally owned businesses and small family farms. These destructive forces are crawling through our country, and are destroying the fabric of community life.
The adoption of food freedom laws are one of the positive steps that we can take to rebuild economic prosperity, and reestablish personal relationships between local food producers and local food consumers.
About the Author
John P. Thomas is a health writer for Health Impact News. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
 I interviewed Peter Kennedy from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund by phone on 4/28/2017.
 I interviewed LeAnn Harner from North Dakota by phone on 6/7/2017.
 Farm to Fork Wyoming – Food Freedom Part 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gotfUgz8UN0 
 I interviewed Heather Retberg from Maine by phone on 4/25/2017.
 I interviewed Betsy Garrold from Maine by phone on 4/24/2017.
 “Commentary: Weighing the cost of ‘home rule’ in Maine,” Colin Woodard, Portland Press Herald, 2/15/2015. http://www.pressherald.com/2015/02/08/commentary-weighing-the-cost-of-home-rule-in-maine/ 
 “Municipal Home Rule,” Maine Townsman, January 1983. https://www.memun.org/SchoolsProject/Resources/Ordinance/home_rule.htm 
 “Local Food Sovereignty Rights on Trial Before Maine Supreme Court,” John P. Thomas, Health Impact News, 5/14/2014. http://healthimpactnews.com/2014/local-food-sovereignty-rights-on-trial-before-maine-supreme-court/# 
 “SP0242, LD 725, item 1, An Act To Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems,” Signed into law on 6/16/2017. https://legislature.maine.gov/legis/bills/display_ps.asp?LD=725&snum=128