Maine offered a new spin on an old saw this week. Everyone knows about “pork barrel” politics, where elected officials effectively bribe taxpayers with their own money. It describes a scenario where a legislator works to get a pet project funded for political gain and glory.
This week saw the introduction of “pork freezer” politics.
The tale of Winterport’s Souder Station Farm is now known far and wide. Randy Canarr, the owner of the operation, raises pigs for sale. Part of his produce is bacon. By all accounts, it is phenomenal.
However, we have a fairly robust regulatory edifice in Maine, and farms are no exception. Meat products are subject to a stringent inspection regime. While small amounts of poultry can be processed on farms, most other animals need to be harvested in licensed facilities under the eye of state personnel. Like most things with government, this includes a lot of paperwork.
Souder Station took their pigs to another farm to be prepared and packaged. Unfortunately, because of paperwork errors, the bacon was deemed illegal to sell. Bummer. But at least Canarr and his friends could have a phenomenal, albeit deconstructed pig roast. Right?
Not quite. Under our byzantine system, because his products were marked for sale and included an inspection stamp, regulators said they needed to open all the packages and douse them with bleach.
Cue the pork freezer politics. Everyone from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree down to Canarr’s local legislators sprung into action. They all decried the idea that his products would be destroyed, not even permitting him to feed family and friends. It sounds like government run amok. And it was.
Fortunately, Gov. Janet Mills’ administration was able to work things out and hundreds of pounds of meat will not be bleached. Press releases sprung forth from the offices of elected officials celebrating the victory. They all wanted some measure of political gain from saving Canarr’s bacon. Pork freezer politics.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we have a representative government where officials are supposed to advocate for the concerns of their constituents. This just happened to be an easy one; nobody, not even the regulators tasked with enforcing the rules, thought it a good idea to pour bleach on perfectly good pork.
So the immediate issue surrounding Souder Station is solved. But what comes next? One of the biggest challenges for Maine farmers — particularly those growing meat — concerns the availability of the inspection program. There are not a lot of facilities offering inspected processing. Further, if a farmer uses a “state-inspected” facility, they are legally prohibited from selling across state lines. If Canarr wanted to sell his unbleached bacon in New Hampshire, he would need to find a federally governed facility.
Fortunately, in the final days of the LePage administration, former Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb signed Maine up for a cooperative state-and-federal program. It allows state-inspected processors to qualify under federal rules. In short, it lets Maine-inspected facilities apply federal inspection marks, helping our farms feed the nation.
But it didn’t have the allure of pork freezer politics, so you probably never heard about it. Yet it is as much a “common sense” policy as not pouring bleach on pork. And the Maine Department of Agriculture would be much better served publicizing that program and helping farmers continue to develop markets for the phenomenal bounty of our state, instead of garnering headlines about destroying bacon.
That is the thing about politics. Politicians are understandably attracted to the shiny, often silly repercussions of the laws they pass, enabling them to take a stance standing against an overly burdensome government. However, everyone’s life would be much better if we didn’t have laws that called for destroying perfectly good food because of a paperwork mishap.
Besides, fights about “pork” should be waged over budgets, not bacon.