This was a very busy week for the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC). The most noteworthy thing we accomplished was to pass H.112, which requires the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering (GE). Though commonly known as GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), the term GE is preferable because of the implications regarding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling guidelines. Whatever you call it, however, this is groundbreaking in that we are the first state to pass such legislation without a delayed effective date.
Ultimately, our committee, House Judiciary, and House Appropriations were able to concur with the changes the Senate made to our bill. The Senate made some small changes to our "Findings" section, which tightened up the language and made the bill more defensible if we end up going to court. They also created the "Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Special Fund" that can accept money appropriated by the General Assembly, as well as private and public donations, grants, gifts, and bequests. The fund can pay for implementation costs such as rulemaking as well as liabilities if we are sued.
What makes this bill different than what has been passed in Connecticut and Maine is the effective date. In both of those states, the effective date is reliant on passage of similar legislation in other states. In the bill we passed in 2013, we had two possible effective dates: Either 18 months after two other states enacted legislation with requirements substantially comparable for the labeling of food produced from genetic engineering, or July 1, 2015. This gave time for businesses to use up existing packaging or potentially reformulate their products to eliminate GE components. The Senate, in its version, decided on the date of July 1, 2016, which gives producers the same amount of time to prepare for the change, given that this is a year later.
After the vote, Sen. David Zuckerman and I, were interviewed by Jeffrey Smith, the author of Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette. He referred to us as heroes because we have been working on the GE issue for many years but I prefer to think of us as shepherds. The real heroes are the Vermonters who kept up the pressure that kept the issue alive.
In April of 2012, 350-400 people traveled to Montpelier on a Thursday evening to express their feelings about food produced with GE. Every single person who testified wanted their food labeled for health, safety, and environmental reasons. At the time, there was disappointment that the bill didn't pass; it made it out of our committee and into House Judiciary. Last year, we worked on it again and got it through the House on a strong 99-42 vote. I was very glad we could agree with the Senate's version and the motion to concur passed 114-30. Again, we saw the strong activism of Vermonters weighing in with their legislators. Many of those who voted against it felt compelled to explain their votes.
The other bill we worked on is S.70, which allows for the delivery of raw (unpasteurized) milk to farmers' markets for Tier 2 producers. In that bill, we also lifted the required daily limit and made it a weekly limit, acknowledging that some days are busier than others.
The HAFPC has two guiding principles: Our first principle is food safety, our second is economic development/opportunity for farmers. S.70 strikes a careful balance between the two principles.
When we first passed the raw milk bill five years ago, I was in favor of delivery to farmers' markets -- it just made sense given people's busy schedules and the carbon footprint issue. I did not prevail because of concerns that milk would not be kept at the proper temperature (40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower), chain of custody, etc., but we did allow delivery to people's homes.
There are those in the state who would like to see the sale of raw milk banned altogether. The issue conjures up dire stories of potential illness and of course we need to be very careful, but most tainted food scares are the result of huge agribusiness.
One of the concerns about raw milk is potential contamination with listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can cause illness and death particularly in pregnant women, newborns, older adults, and adults with compromised immune systems. What is not talked about as much is the fact that deli meat is a major source of listeria. The good news is that listeriosis is treatable with antibiotics.
On the other hand, there are those who feel that they get great health benefits from drinking raw milk and want to source it from reliable producers. We worked hard on the original bill to make sure Vermonters access the safest, cleanest product with testing, labeling, and sampling requirements that some producers complain about, but food safety and Vermonters' health is our number one concern. We also included elements, such as the farm visit, meant to provide the farmer with some level of protection.
Our underlying goals are to increase the professionalism of our raw milk producers, provide a safe product to Vermonters, and increase economic opportunity for our agricultural community.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.