Monday February 18, 2013

The Fee Bill passed the House this week. People sometimes ask why the cost for their driver's license or vehicle registration went up. Every year, the Ways and Means Committee reviews one-third of Vermont's fees. They do one-third at a time to make the process manageable. A fee is not a tax but an amount of money charged for a service provided by the state. Instead of a broad-based tax that is paid by everyone, a fee has an impact only on those using that service, for instance, driving a vehicle.

Years ago, there wasn't as routine a method for reviewing the fee structure and there were instances when a fee had not gone up for many years, but the cost for providing the service had significantly. This created a tough situation that sometimes resulted in a shock to Vermonters.

It's fair to say that this new systematic method of review makes a lot of sense. Agencies and Departments have to justify the proposed increases to the Ways and Means Committee and if they aren't able to convince committee members, the increases don't happen. This periodic review provides a more stable source of income, which helps government provide the services needed by our citizens, and allows for less dramatic changes for Vermonters.

The House Agriculture Committee took extensive testimony on H.112, an act relating to the labeling of food with genetically-engineered (GE) ingredients. It is important to take testimony from all sides of an issue in order to create good legislation. We heard from a representative of the Grocer's Association, who, while saying they neither supported nor opposed the legislation, had serious concerns. The same person also represents Vermont Specialty Foods. Some of their members produce organic products and they are in favor of labeling; others are not organic and fear that labeling would have a negative impact on their businesses. Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben and Jerry's, testified in our committee that they are striving to obtain their ingredients from non-GE sources in order to become GE-free by the end of 2013. They support labeling and did so last year even though their product would have required labeling.

Why labeling? An overwhelming majority of Vermonters polled want it. There are a number of reasons but health concerns top the list. Most people are of the belief that the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does extensive testing on GE products. In fact, they do no testing of GE products. Rather, they rely on the word of the biotech companies making the products and third party laboratories paid by those companies.

We took testimony from Steven Druker, executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity (http://www.biointegrity.org), who believes that GE products are in our markets illegally. In a presentation delivered at an FDA Public Meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1999 as part of a Panel on Scientific, Safety, and Regulatory Issues he stated, "Not only does FDA policy violate sound science, it violates the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act."

During discovery in a lawsuit, documents came to light indicating that the FDA's own scientists had concerns. Mr. Druker's statement continues: "Although the FDA's official statements ignore the risks of genetic engineering, its own scientists are well aware of them. This came to light when the FDA had to give us copies of its files during the course of the lawsuit. Memorandum after memorandum contains warnings about the unique hazards of genetically engineered food. As FDA microbiologist Dr. Louis Pribyl stated: ‘There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering ....' He added that several aspects of gene splicing ‘. . . may be more hazardous ...' Similarly, Dr. E.J. Matthews of the FDA's Toxicology Group warned that ‘... genetically modified plants could ... contain unexpected high concentrations of plant toxicants ...,' and he cautioned that some of these toxicants could be unexpected and could ‘... be uniquely different chemicals that are usually expressed in unrelated plants.'"

The point is that GE products are not given the same scrutiny as food additives and that is considered by many to be a problem.  There is concern that these products have a negative effect on human health and the environment and should, at very least, be labeled, not to mention carefully tested by an objective entity.

It has been pointed out that a majority, perhaps 80 percent, of the products on our supermarket shelves contain GE ingredients. If you read the label and see corn or soy in a product, it is most likely GE. Sugar, unless it is specified as "cane sugar" is probably beet sugar, which is likely GE. Canola oil, unless specified as non-GE, is probably GE. It is ubiquitous in our food system. In order to avoid GE, one must buy certified organic food, which is frequently more expensive. Work continues on H.112 this coming week.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee.