The Senate passed H.112, a bill requiring the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering, on a strong 28-2 vote. There were relatively few substantive changes made to the bill, which originated in the House.
One big change was the addition of the "Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Special Fund." The purpose of the fund would be to help pay for implementation costs including rulemaking. It could also be used to pay for liabilities if the state is sued. The fund could accept public and private donations, gifts, grants, and bequests, as well as money appropriated by the General Assembly. The concept of a special fund is not a new one -- there are several special funds already in existence.
Another change made by the Senate is the effective date. The House version, passed in 2013, had two possibilities for the effective date depending on which came first. One was a trigger of 18 months after two other states enacted legislation with requirements substantially comparable for the labeling of food produced from genetic engineering, the other was a "drop dead" date of July 1, 2015. Our intention was to give our producers time to use up existing packaging and/or reformulate their products so as to use non-GE ingredients if they wished. The Senate did not include a trigger but decided on July 1, 2016. This, too, would allow a two-year period for producers to adjust.
One concern has been that if we didn't include a trigger, we would be sued. However, in 2012, when our committee worked on this bill the first time, we took testimony from an attorney for the biotechnology industry indicating that regardless of a trigger, they would consider this an imminent threat and initiate a lawsuit under the legal tenet of "ripeness." Interestingly, both Maine and Connecticut have passed similar bills that included triggers and to my knowledge they have not been sued.
The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC) is reviewing H.112 and will have several options. We can concur with the Senate proposal, we can concur with further proposals of amendment, or if we really disagree with what has been done, we can ask for a Committee of Conference. The House Judiciary Committee will be reviewing its sections of the bill and because the Senate included the addition of a fund, the Appropriations Committee will take a look at it as well. I expect that we will be making our decision next week. If we choose to concur, the bill will go to Governor Peter Shumlin.
The HAFPC has also been working on S.70, a bill relating to the delivery of raw (unpasteurized) milk at farmers' markets. When we passed the original raw milk bill several years ago, we created a two-tiered system. Producers at the Tier 1 level can sell up to 12.5 gallons of milk per day. Tier 2 can sell up to 40 gallons per day but have more stringent testing and labeling requirements.
For both Tier 1 and Tier 2, we allow customers to purchase milk at the farm. Tier 2 producers can also deliver milk to people's homes once the customer has visited the farm and pre-paid for their milk. Because raw milk is not pasteurized, it is important that it be handled properly and kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less so delivery must be done in refrigerated units or cooler-contained ice baths.
The majority of our committee is on board regarding the delivery of raw milk to farmers' markets and is considering other changes to the law as well. Food safety is our number one concern but we would also like producers to be able to expand their markets where possible. One consideration is to allow for weekly aggregate sales rather than a hard daily limit of 40 gallons.
The Education Governance bill, H.883, continues to make its way through the process. The Ways and Means Committee did a strike-all amendment to the Education Committee's version of the bill, which was a bit unusual. Now the Appropriations Committee is working on it and may do a strike-all to the Ways and Means version.
The process for this bill has been somewhat unprecedented and I remain hopeful that whatever ends up on the House Floor, if anything, includes a public engagement process that will bring Vermonters together to work collaboratively and creatively to determine the changes we would like to see in our education system. Educating our children is the most important investment we make in our future so careful consideration should be given to anything we do.
Signs of spring are appearing in Montpelier -- the tulips are coming up in the warmer spots though they were covered with snow this past week. The grass on the State House lawn turned green almost overnight and children were playing soccer when I left Friday afternoon. Soon the Frisbee players will be back -- always a sure sign that the end of the Session is drawing near. My hope is that we will get the State House garden planted before we are done for the year.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.
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