Full list: Agriculture in the News

Wall Street Journal: Crackdown on Raw-Milk Machines Steams Fans in Europe

In Europe, Restrictions on Dispensers Have Farmers Frothing; Models That Moo
By Sarah Kent

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Andrea Verlicchi, an Italian Web designer, used to leave his apartment in the mornings, stroll to a nearby vending machine and fill his recyclable glass bottle with fresh, raw milk.

“The milk is great,” said Mr. Verlicchi, like drinking it “directly from the cow.”

Vending machines that dispense fresh, unpasteurized milk have proliferated in Italy and throughout much of Europe in recent years. The stainless steel mechanical fridges can be found in supermarket parking lots, town squares and on roaming milk-mobiles. According to a “milk map” website designed by Mr. Verlicchi there are currently around 1,300 machines in Italy alone.

But even in Europe, where stinky cheeses, steak tartare and snails are all cheerfully scarfed down, the machines are under siege.

In Italy, regulators have cracked down on sales, suspending or shutting down machines that don’t meet exacting hygiene standards. Those that remain must carry big warning signs in red letters, advising buyers to boil their milk before drinking it.

Elsewhere, self-service milk machines have had it even tougher. In 2011, one popped up in the food hall of luxury London department store Selfridges, briefly sitting alongside designer cupcakes, Iberico hams and other goods favored by food fashionistas.

But the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency soured on the idea and intervened, ultimately launching a lawsuit against Selfridges and Stephen Hook, the dairy farmer behind the machine.

The FSA’s allegation that the farmer and department store breached food hygiene regulations was eventually dropped after both parties agreed to no longer sell via the vending machine. The FSA is currently considering whether to allow the wider use of the machines.

“We stopped selling following the decision by the FSA to undertake research and consultation into the product,” Selfridges said in an emailed statement.

The vending-machine shed at Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, England. Dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore says he sells around 30 gallons a day, despite his farm’s remote location in the English countryside. ENLARGE
The vending-machine shed at Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, England. Dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore says he sells around 30 gallons a day, despite his farm’s remote location in the English countryside. Sarah Kent/The Wall Street Journal

The machines are technically allowed in England, but only if they are located on the farm where the milk is produced. England’s producers say that defeats the purpose of the vending machines, which should make the milk more accessible.

“Are we going to…just remain a raw-milk backwater?” said Mr. Hook, who manages Hook & Son, the U.K.’s biggest raw-milk vendor and starred in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival surprise hit, “The Moo Man,” a documentary about him and his favorite cow, Ida.

It is a question being asked in Germany too, where the rules on vending machines are similar to those in England. There, the local chapter of Slow Food—an international organization focused on promoting environmentally friendly and local food—has held raw-milk tastings and campaigned for less severe regulation of raw-milk sales.

Ever since 1864, when Louis Pasteur discovered the process of pasteurization, industrialized countries have flash-heated milk to remove dangerous bacteria like E. coli, salmonella and bovine tuberculosis. The developed world has since carefully controlled the sale of unpasteurized dairy products.

In the U.S., where raw-milk sales are heavily regulated and banned outright in several states, the Food and Drug Administration has on occasion conducted raids on farms in search of illicit dairy products.

Even within the European Union, countries are left to make their own laws on how and if raw milk may be sold. In Scotland, the sale of unpasteurized milk is banned outright because of a serious food poisoning outbreak in the 1980s. In Ireland, raw-milk sales are legal, but the vending machines aren’t.

Proponents say high-tech features make the milk machines safe. Special valves stop the milk from flowing if it gets too warm. More sophisticated machines can send texts to farmers if there is a malfunction or the milk supply is running low. Some models even moo as they dispense milk.

The backlash against mechanical milk dispensers has left some of Europe’s small dairy farmers frothing.

Dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore bemoans the health warning he is required to put on his milk bottles. “I think it’s over-dramatic,” he said, standing outside the shed painted in cow-style black-and-white that houses the raw-milk vending machine on his farm in Suffolk.

Enthusiasts say risks are minimal. Many swear by the microbacteria-rich liquid’s health benefits, claiming raw milk can help cure ailments like asthma and allergies. Some even drink it on doctor’s orders.

And then there is the taste.

Calves at Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, England, which sells fresh, raw milk in vending machines at the farm ENLARGE
Calves at Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, England, which sells fresh, raw milk in vending machines at the farm Sarah Kent/The Wall Street Journal

“It is a delicious food that is quite unlike pasteurized milk. It is all we have in the house,” said Gerry Danby, a lawyer focused on supporting artisan and local food producers and former chair of Slow Food U.K.

“I would be very put out, to say the least, if that were to be prohibited,” he added.

But raw-milk fans say that restricting sales would just drive trade underground onto a black market. English farmers already maintain a brisk trade taking advantage of the fact it is legal for them to sell milk in England, which then gets trucked over the border to Scotland.

Raw-milk producer Ian O’Reilly said he sends anywhere between 10 and 40 gallons a week to customers in Scotland though he could send more if he could only find a cheaper courier to take the boxes packed with bottles up to the Highlands. For now, he can’t cater to customers in more remote locations.

Even with all the restrictions hampering sales, some farmers say they still can’t keep up with demand for the organic, unpasteurized milk.

“We have people approaching us all the time saying they want to buy raw milk and the biggest stumbling block is access,” said Mr. Hook.

At Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk, Mr. Crickmore’s machine attracts a loyal following. He said he sells around 30 gallons a day, despite his farm’s remote location in the English countryside.

“It is mad, 40 or 50 people a day come to our farm…we have one crazy fool who comes” from a town nearly two-hours’ drive away, said Mr. Crickmore, as he refilled the tank in his vending machine for the second time in one afternoon.

“He’ll come and clear out the vending machine. He’ll take 30 liters [8 gallons] at a time and fill up the back of his car.”


Food Safety News: Carriers are Dropping Liability Coverage for Raw-Milk Producers

Some folks who drink raw milk probably already see themselves as risk-takers, but they may not have thought about the fact that drinking their favorite beverage increasingly means not just taking risk but, for the producers, also “going bare.”

“Going bare” is what the insurance industry calls it when someone opts to go without coverage either because they cannot afford it or because it is just not available. For at least the past two years, reports have popped up around the country about raw-milk producers having difficulty obtaining or continuing insurance coverage.

One example came early in 2012 when the Farm Bureau-owned Rural Mutual Insurance Co. sent out notices about all Wisconsin farm policies it covers specifically advising policyholders that their coverage does not provide for “the sale and/or distribution for offsite consumption of unpasteurized (commonly called raw) milk from cows, sheep and goats for human consumption.”

Retail sales of raw milk are illegal in Wisconsin, but off-site consumption of unpasteurized milk bought on the farm is legal. However, raw milk picked up on the farm has apparently become too risky for insurance coverage in Wisconsin.

What began as decisions by individual carriers who sell policies directly to small farms is now a concern for the big re-insurers such as Kansas City, MO-based Aon Risk Solutions. It is more of an insurance company for insurance carriers and helps to keep the industry solvent by spreading risk.

“Most of the entities we work with are larger commercial operations and are not engaged in the sale of raw milk,” explained Tami Griffin, deputy national director for Aon’s Food Systems, Agribusiness & Beverage Group.

“That said,” she told Food Safety News, “we do work with, and have relationships with, underwriters who are in the business of insuring farms, and I would say that they are increasingly concerned about what farmers are selling to consumers through farmers markets, farm stands, etc.”

“Because of the press that raw milk gets, it is definitely on the radar of insurance companies, and I have heard some carriers are not willing to provide coverage for those selling it,” Griffin added.

Insurance coverage going away is still coming as a surprise for some raw-milk producers. Dog Mountain Farm near Carnation, WA, outside Seattle — a stop on many a foodie’s tour itinerary — recently learned that its carrier was dropping its raw-milk coverage.

Dog Mountain runs a farm-to-table café offering a menu for three meals a day, with patrons being a mix of those food tourists and area residents. They had invested $75,000 in a USDA-certified raw goat milk dairy and then found they had lost their liability insurance.

For a raw-milk producer, going bare carries the same risk as going without automobile or home insurance. It means being responsible for any kind of damages or injuries without being able to share that risk with an insurance company.

It is not uncommon for treatment of a child or senior citizen injured by a pathogen such as E. coli O157:H7 or Listeria to result in direct medical costs exceeding $1 million. It makes the decision to go bare literally a bet-the-farm kind of decision.

While tough to get, raw-milk insurance has not totally gone away. Kendall Turner, a Denver insurance broker, advertises on the web that such coverage is still available.

“Recently, it has become very difficult for dairy farms to obtain liability coverage for the sale of raw milk,” Turner said, adding that he can determine in about 20 minutes if someone qualifies for coverage.

He said that the “biggest challenge for the farmer is to understand is that the insurance company sometimes has more rules than the state … .”


Wisconsin Journal Sentinal: Raw-milk advocates plan appeal to state Supreme Court

10/6/14
By Rick Barrett
Full Article

Raw-milk advocates say they’re filing petitions with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in cases they say are about the rights of consumers and food groups to buy raw, unpasteurized milk direct from a farm.

Two of the petitions were expected to be filed Monday, said plaintiff Gayle Loiselle, a food-rights activist from Dousman. They stem from cases brought by dairy farmers Mark and Petra Zinniker of Walworth County and Grassway Organics Farm Store in New Holstein.

Earlier, a state appeals court ruled against the Zinnikers and Grassway Organics in disputes with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, but the court sidestepped the issue of whether a person has a right to purchase and consume unpasteurized milk.

“The Wisconsin appellate court refused to rule on the question before them regarding the constitutionality of food rights and instead deflected the issue to license violations,” Loiselle said.

A third petition was filed with the state’s highest court earlier this summer involving a case stemming from dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger of Loganville.

“The plaintiffs in all three cases, along with thousands more seeking fresh food directly from the farm, believe they have a fundamental constitutional right to choose what they eat and to choose where that food comes from. We have constitutional rights to conduct business directly between farmers and citizens without government interference and without middlemen like food processors or distributors,” Loiselle said.

With the exception of limited, incidental sales, state law prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk to the public because it may carry bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.

Raw-milk advocates say they want access to fresh, unprocessed milk that contains beneficial bacteria. They claim the beneficial bacteria are destroyed by pasteurization, in which milk is heated to a high temperature to destroy pathogens.

“This is about basic rights,” Loiselle said. “We believe the Supreme Court has an obligation to the people of Wisconsin to review these three cases on the merits of these constitutional rights now under question.”

In early 2010, a limited liability coalition formed by raw milk supporters, called Nourished by Nature, entered into a contract with the Zinniker farm to purchase a herd of dairy cows. Nourished by Nature agreed to pay a fee to the Zinnikers, and members would then visit the farm and collect raw milk for their own consumption at home.

The Zinnikers’ attorney asked the state whether that arrangement was legal, and the Department of Agriculture responded with a letter saying it was a “sham arrangement” that could result in civil and criminal penalties. The Zinnikers then filed a lawsuit, seeking a court ruling that their operation was indeed legal.

State regulators argued, and the appeals court agreed, that the Zinnikers were breaking the law because they were distributing milk produced on their farm without a milk producer’s license.

Because of that conclusion, it wasn’t necessary to determine whether a person has a right to consume raw milk, the court said.

“Even assuming that the members of Nourished by Nature have a right to consume unpasteurized milk, the Zinnikers do not have a legal right to operate a dairy farm as milk producers without a license,” the court said.

In the Grassway Organics case, the appeals court said the operators of the farm store needed a retail license to sell milk to members of an association who paid a fee to buy from the store. State officials had told Grassway they couldn’t sell or distribute raw milk from the store.

Store owners Wayne and Kay Craig sued, seeking a circuit court ruling that selling raw milk to members of the association was legal.

The appeals court agreed with the circuit court, which determined the Craigs needed a retail food establishment license. The ruling did not address whether the sale of raw milk would be legal if a retail license were obtained.


Seattle Times: After $75K investment, raw milk dairy in Carnation (WA) unable to get insurance

By Rebekah Denn
October 2, 2014
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Last year, Cindy Krepky realized her long-held dream of building a raw milk goat dairy on her Dog Mountain Farm near Carnation. After building her herd and investing $75,000 in a USDA-certified plant, she provided bottled milk from her does to customers through her farm store, CSAs and other outlets.

Now, she told customers, her insurance company will no longer cover raw milk sales. While the product is legal (though controversial) in Washington state, insurance coverage has been an issue for other farms nationwide. (For the lowdown on the Washington situation, click here.)

She’s looking for other insurance coverage, or considering leasing the goats. She plans to provide milk to the up-and-coming Cherry Valley Dairy for a new line of goat cheese. A Cherry Valley cheese maker just spent time in Italy learning to work with goat milk, and Krepky expects the results to be “incredible.” Still, now, she doesn’t expect now to ever recoup her investment in the dairy and bottling plant – or to achieve the goal she worked toward for so many years on the land where the sustainably-minded farmers also oversee vegetables and fruits, pigs, chickens and eggs, and other products from soups to jams.

“Such is the life of farming,” Krepky said philosophically by phone Wednesday, momentarily postponing a rabbit slaughtering. “You never know whether it’s going to be Mother Nature or some new regulation… It’s a very risky business.”


Burlington Free Press: VPIRG to help in GMO labeling defense

Free Press Staff
October 8, 2014
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Two consumer groups — Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Food Safety — will be allowed to file legal briefs in the GMO labeling case, a federal judge has ruled.

Christian Reiss, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Vermont, said the two groups could participate in the case as friends of the court.

She rejected their request to intervene in the case, saying their interests would be represented by the state, which is defending the 2014 law.

“We’ve very pleased to be granted the opportunity to help defend the GMO labeling law from attack by giant corporate interests,” said Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG. “We helped more than 32,000 Vermonters share their concerns over GMOs with their legislators as the law was being debated in Montpelier. We know how much this issue matters to the State and to consumers, and we’ll do everything we can to ensure that Vermonters’ right to make informed decisions is upheld.”

Supporters of Vermont’s law, which takes effect in 2016, say labeling would bring transparency to the information consumers would have about their food.


CBS: VT to Hold Hearings on GMO Labeling Rules

October 13 2014
Full Article
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell is planning three public meetings on proposed rules to implement the new state law requiring the labeling of food produced through genetic engineering.
The meetings will be held the week of Oct. 20 in Burlington, Montpelier and Brattleboro.
Sorrell, whose office is responsible for promulgating the rules of the law, says the rules will provide clarity on the scope and reach of the law and its goal of providing information while minimizing burdens on the regulated community.
The meetings are designed to get feedback from producers, retailers and consumers. Last spring, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a first-in-the-nation law requiring the labeling of food made with GMOs.

Grist: Ben & Jerry’s is fighting GMOs with fudge brownie ice cream


Brattleboro Reformer: VPIRG denied intervener status in GMO lawsuit

By BOB AUDETTE
10/10/14
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BRATTLEBORO — A federal judge has denied a motion to allow two groups to become interveners in a lawsuit filed against the state by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

However, wrote Judge Christina Reiss, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Food Safety will be allowed to file friend of the court briefs in support of the state’s new law concerning the labeling of food products containing genetically engineered products.

In June, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont a lawsuit to overturn Act 120, which requires manufacturers and retailers to identify whether raw and processed food sold in Vermont was produced in while or in part through genetic engineering.

The law is intended to go into effect on July 1, 2016, unless Reiss issues an injunction, which the plaintiffs have requested. In August, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office filed a motion to dismiss. A hearing for oral arguments in support and opposed to the motions has been tentatively scheduled for Dec. 18 or 19.

In denying intervener status to VPIRG and CFS, Reiss noted that the two organizations have demonstrated “a significant interest” in the passage of Act 120 and would be “impaired” if it was held unconstitutional

She noted that the court need not resolve the question of necessity “because intervention is warranted only if (VPIRG and CFS) can also demonstrate that their interest in this case is not ‘protected adequately by the parties to the action.'”

In this case, wrote Reiss, the state’s interests in defending Act 120 are so similar to those of VPIRG and CFS that “adequacy of representation (is) assured.”

VPIRG and CFS had argued that the financial resources required to fight a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs with “sizable income and resources” raises fiscal concerns about the state’s ability to defend Act 120. However, wrote Reiss, if at any point the state indicates its financial resources are strained, the parties can renew their request for intervention.

The state’s strategy in defending Act 120 and VPIRG’s and CFS’ motive for litigation also are not a cause for intervention, wrote Reiss.

“Professed differences in trial strategy are insufficient to entitle a party to intervene …”

Because VPIRG and CFS intend to add to, rather than duplicate the state’s defense, wrote Reiss, they will be allowed to file memoranda as friends of the court.

In their motion for an injunction, the plaintiffs wrote Vermont’s law rests on philosophical or religious beliefs, concerns about large-scale agricultural operations, or biases against certain companies, which have nothing to do with the food itself.

They contend Act 120 is meant “to pacify a vocal segment of the population that opposes genetic engineering.”

 


ABC: Consumer Reports: Food labeling for GMOs

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The controversy is growing over whether foods should be labeled if they contain GMOs, “genetically modified organisms.” Vermont recently passed legislation requiring GMO labeling. Dozens of other states are considering similar actions. And labeling requirements are on the ballot in Oregon and Colorado this fall. Consumer Reports tested more than 80 processed foods to see just how widespread GMOs are and whether you can trust food labels.

About 90 percent of corn produced in the U.S. is now genetically modified, as with ssoybeans. Consumer Reports’ tests show GMOs can be in many foods, including these cereals, these snack bars and these soy-based infant formulas.

Since labeling is not required, you can’t tell by looking at the package, although some may say “No GMO,” “Non GMO” or “Non-GMO Project Verified.”

Consumer Reports tested a variety of products containing soy or corn for GMOs, at least 2 samples of each, each from a different lot.

“Unless they were labeled organic, the vast majority of products without a specific claim regarding GMOs actually did contain a substantial amount,” says Michael Crupain, M.D., M.P.H of Consumer Reports.

What about foods labeled “natural?” A Consumer Reports’ survey of one thousand people found that more than 60 percent believe “natural” means “no GMOs.” That’s not what the tests found.

“There is no legal definition for the claim ‘natural’ on processed foods,” says Crupain. “Virtually all the samples we tested that said “natural” but didn’t make claims about being organic or non GMO in fact contained a high percentage of GMOs.”

Then there are unverified claims, like “Non GMO.” Though not independently certified, they mostly proved accurate in Consumer Reports’ tests.

The one exception: these Xochitl corn chips, They’re labeled “no GMO,” but contained a high proportion of GMO corn in all six samples tested. Its “Organic” white corn chips did meet Consumer Reports’ standards for non-GMO.
“Our findings confirmed that the most reliable labels for avoiding GMOs are ‘Non-GMO Project Verified,’ or organic – both independently certified,” Crupain says.

A spokesperson for Xochitl chips told Consumer Reports that the company and its supplier “are both baffled” by Consumer Reports’ test results.


Seven Days: Fair Game: Truth in Labeling

By Paul Heintz
10/8/14
Full Article

Truth in Labeling

Shumlin’s reelection campaign dropped another $80,000 on television advertising last Thursday, bringing his TV total in the last month to $295,000. That’s more than the $285,000 he spent on the tube throughout his 2012 reelection campaign — and he’s still got a month to go before Election Day.

Is somebody a little nervous?

While the gov’s first two ads touched on pretty predictable themes — the minimum wage, college affordability and a whole lot of Tropical Storm Irene — his latest focuses on a surprising subject: GMO labeling.

Surprising because, well, Shumlin spent years arguing it was a risky proposition.

That ain’t how it plays on TV.

The ad features a Montpelier mother and daughter putting away groceries and inspecting the nutritional facts on a box of Cheerios. The mother tells the viewer she wants to “make good choices about what we eat,” so she’s “always checking the labels on our food.”

“That’s why I appreciate Gov. Shumlin’s work to make it the law that genetically modified foods be labeled, so we know what’s in them. That’s important to me,” the mom says. “It says a lot about Vermont that we’re the first state to require that. And it says a lot about Peter Shumlin that he made it happen.”

Made it happen?

Tell that to the folks at Rural Vermont, the Northeast Organic Farming Association and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group who spent years fighting for GMO labeling while the governor resisted it.

“I would just say there were a lot of people working on it for a very long time,” says Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden), who introduced the first such bill in the late 1990s. “It was good Gov. Shumlin joined us in the end to support a strong bill.”

For years, Shumlin said he backed GMO labeling in concept, but believed that mandating it was legally perilous. He argued that any such attempt would suffer the same fate as Vermont’s 1994 law requiring dairy products produced with recombinant bovine growth hormone to be labeled as such. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down in 1996 and awarded damages.

“It cost us a lot of money,” Shumlin said during an April 2012 press conference as he urged the House to shelve the bill.

“I believe that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating,” he continued. “I also know this is almost identical to the case that we lost in the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was a better court than we have now on these issues.”

Shumlin made much the same point in March 2013, telling an audience in Rutland, “The food industry took us to the Second Circuit. It was not only called unconstitutional for some very good reasons, but we had to pay the legal fees.”

Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen reads the record differently, saying, “I can’t remember or find a time in print when Gov. Shumlin opposed GMO labeling.”

Opposed it? That’d be a stretch. “Made it happen?” Also a stretch.

By the time advocates pushed the bill through the Senate last April, the governor had embraced it. In May, he held the biggest signing ceremony of the year on the Statehouse steps, comparing GMO labeling to other Vermont firsts, such as banning slavery and legalizing same-sex marriage.

These days, he brings it up at every campaign stop. Guess it polls well!

VPIRG executive director Paul Burns, who stood beside Shumlin at the signing ceremony, is diplomatic in his assessment of the governor’s position. Calling it “an evolutionary process,” Burns says that what’s important is that Shumlin eventually got to “yes.”

“It was an example of democracy working,” he says.

But really? Shumlin “made it happen?”

“Well, clearly he signed it,” Burns says. “So he made it happen!”