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    alex beam

    Eat free or die

    Feeling fenced in, small farms claim the right to grow and sell their products outside regulatory bounds

    Have you heard of the “food sovereignty’’ movement, sometimes called the “food rights’’ campaign? Its proponents, mainly small, independent farmers and their clientele, want to eat and sell the food they grow free from interference from state and federal regulators. They like to compare themselves to the civil rights crusaders of the 1960s. I’d call that a stretch, but you can make your own conclusions.

    Everyone knows that cool trends - converting parking spaces into mini-parks, for instance - begin in California, but food sovereignty seems to have started in New England. Roughly a year ago, Sedgwick, Maine, enacted a “Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance.’’ Invoking the Declaration of Independence and the Maine Constitution, the ordinance declared that “Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing. . . . We hold that federal and state regulations impede local food production and constitute a usurpation of our citizens’ right to foods of their choice.’’

    Soon after, several other Maine towns followed suit. The contagion spread to two towns in Vermont and, improbably, to Los Angeles County, population 9.8 million. The County’s Board of Supervisors is considering a “Resolution recognizing the rights of individuals to grow and consume their own food and to enter into private contracts with other individuals to board animals for food.’’


    The big picture is clear. An ever-increasing number of independent farmers and health-conscious consumers no longer believe that the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and corporations such as Tyson Foods and Monsanto have the public’s best interest in mind. Scanning the “most notable foodborne illness outbreaks of 2011’’ listed in Food Safety News, who can argue with them?

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    Example: “On Dec. 16, Hannaford, a Scarborough, Maine-based grocery chain, recalled fresh ground beef products that may have been contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Typhimurium.’’ Sixteen people fell ill.

    Example: “A multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes was associated with consumption of cantaloupe’’; 146 people fell ill.

    And so on.

    In fairness, several virulent outbreaks were attributed to “natural’’ agriculture, e.g., “Raw milk products produced by Organic Pastures were recalled and quarantined by the State of California after five children . . . were infected with the same strain of E. coli O157:H7.’’


    Getting government off small farmers’ backs sounds laudable in the abstract, and the Don’t Tread on Me foodies’ proposals are hardly radical. They push ideas such as “herd-sharing,’’ where urban consumers pay for access to raw or farm-fresh milk, or “farm to fork’’ banquet meals, where farmers serve, say, freshly slaughtered pork and straight-from-the-cow dairy products to the Michael Pollan-Mark Bittman crowd.

    Sounds pretty harmless to me. But David Gumpert, who has been chronicling the food sovereignty movement on his website, The Complete Patient, says government intrusion into what amounts to people’s food privacy has become more harsh. “There’s clearly more aggressiveness on the part of the food safety community toward ‘protecting us,’ ’’ he says.

    Examples abound. In Venice, Calif., agents filed felony charges against the owner of Rawsome Foods and led him off his property in handcuffs. In Nevada, state authorities busted a “farm to fork’’ banquet and insisted the farmer destroy the food she had prepared - even after she offered to feed it to her livestock. “Who gave them the right to tell me what I feed my animals?’’ farmer Laura Bledsoe wrote in her account of the incident.

    If ever a story had two sides to it, it’s this one. While it may be true that the USDA and the FDA kowtow to Big Farma and hogtie small farmers with red tape, food safety laws exist for a reason. Meat regulation owes a great deal to the sensational revelations of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking 1906 novel, “The Jungle,’’ which described rampant disease at meatpacking plants and even alleged that workers fell into cooking vats and were melted into lard.

    Surprisingly, I couldn’t find anyone in the public health apparat willing to stand up for the food regs. State agriculture commissioner Scott Soares rose to the challenge: “We grow only 10 or 15 percent of the food we consume here in the Commonwealth,’’ Soares said. (For the Northeast as a whole, that percentage is 4 percent.) “Food is necessarily sourced in other locations, and there are inherent risks that come with additional handling and transportation. How can we be certain of a safe food supply if there aren’t nationwide standards in place?’’

    Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is