Full list: Agriculture in the News

VT Digger: Senators preview legal challenges to GMO labeling law

By Hilary Niles
Mar. 19, 2014
Full Article

State lawmakers got a sneak preview Wednesday of the court battle that likely awaits if they pass a law requiring genetically modified foods sold in Vermont to be labeled.

Industry representatives both for and against a labeling law gave heated testimony at the Statehouse to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a bill that already passed the House now awaits action.

H.112 would mandate that most packaged foods be labeled if they contain genetically modified organisms. As currently written, dairy products, alcohol and meat, plus restaurant food, would be exempted from the law.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of Senate Judiciary, said he supports the bill, but his biggest concerns are the potential cost of litigation and the dairy exemption.

Assistant Attorney General Bridget Asay testified that the state may spend about $1 million defending the law in court. Even if it is successful, she said it would be hard to recover legal fees. If the state lost, the legal challenge could cost $5 million or more. The estimate includes the state’s costs and potential reimbursement for a victorious plaintiff.

Given the size of the potential price tag, Sears says, he wants to make sure the law is failsafe.

To that end, the hearing Wednesday served as a preview of what challenges opponents may lodge against the pending legislation. Sears said the expert testimony opposing a labeling law comprised the first negative comments his committee had heard, though the Senate Agriculture Committee previously gathered opposing views in their deliberations.

Potential amendments

As senators finalize the bill for a committee vote by the end of March, two major amendments emerge as possibilities: One to require a legal defense fund to cover the costs of litigation, and another to eliminate the dairy exemption for fear it may undermine the bill’s viability in court.

Asay conveyed Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s concerns about a proposal to pass the bill only if a privately funded legal defense fund would be established to cover the expense of legal challenges.

“If the Legislature concludes that a proposed law serves the public interest and should be adopted notwithstanding the possibility of a legal challenge, it should pass the law and assume the cost of its defense,” Sorrell wrote in a letter to Sears.

“Quite frankly that boxes us in,” Sears told Asay at the hearing. He said he thinks it would be irresponsible to set the state up for a potentially costly lawsuit without setting aside the money to pay for it.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said she’s troubled by the prospect of setting a precedent for only supporting what can be backed by wealthy interests.

The legal defense fund idea was not part of the Senate Agriculture bill, Sears acknowledged after the hearing, but he said that doesn’t mean the idea can’t be revisited.

Leaving dairy out of the bill was a strategic move on the part of VPIRG.

“We wanted to make the law about genetically modified foods,” said Falko Schilling, a lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “Milk itself is not genetically modified,” Schilling said, even though milk-producing animals may consume GMO grains.

VPIRG’s pro bono legal counsel, the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at the Vermont Law School, testified that case law also supports the exemption. Andrew Homan cited the failed regulation of the growth hormone rBST as a lesson that any object of labeling regulation must be provably different from the products that don’t require labels.

Milk samples from animals that have and have not consumed GMO grains have not been proven compositionally distinct, he said. Therefore, they should be treated the same. Genetically modified ingredients in food products, however, can be detected.

Still, Sears wants assurance.

“Do we have a reason, that can be defended in court, that exempts dairy and not corn chips,” he asked. “Or is it because Vermont is a big dairy state?”

The issue of milk’s composition presages a deeper legal argument behind GMO product labeling.

A potential lawsuit would hinge on several legal arguments: First Amendment rights and protections against compelled speech, “equal protection” laws, rules prohibiting conflict between state and federal laws, and the so-called “dormant commerce” clause saying states can’t make laws that will have adverse impact on interstate commerce.

Beneath these legal questions brews a morass of conflicting opinions, contradictory scientific reports and varying interpretations about federal policy on GMOs — or lack thereof.

The differences are critical because many legal arguments — especially that of compelled speech — revolve around whether or not GMO products are different, and whether the information contained in a label is “fact.”

Wednesday morning, labeling supporters said the federal Food and Drug Administration had not determined whether or not GMO foods are safe. But labeling opponents said the FDA had clearly determined that they are.

Stanley Abramson, an attorney with Arent Fox PLLC who represents the Biotechnology Industry Organization, as well as global agricultural firm Monsanto, is a former lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency and a principal drafter of the federal government’s Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. Abramson testified by phone from Washington, D.C., to caution against the labeling law.

He said the FDA’s position is that GMO food should be held to the same safety standards as anything raised through traditional breeding techniques. This implies the two groups of food are “substantially similar” and therefore should be treated equally under the law. Any labeling requirement to distinguish GMO food would be misleading, Abramson testified.

Abramson’s position was echoed by Dr. Val Giddings, a geneticist by training who now works as a private consultant and who testified as senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Silver Springs, Md. Giddings and Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with the Consumers Union, differed emphatically on bodies of science surrounding GMO foods.

Giddings testified at length about a lack of credible scientific evidence that GMO foods pose any risks.

The flip side of federal law and policy treating GMO and non-GMO food equally is that there is no mention of GMO products in the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. When it comes to the interplay between federal and state laws, federal statutes hold sway. No state law can preempt a law of the nation.

“The state requirement to label does not conflict with any federal law because there is none,” said Hanses, of the Consumers Union.

The other member of VPIRG’s counsel at the hearing, Laura Murphy, said similar labeling laws bolster the state’s defense on the grounds of interstate commerce.

Should it pass, H.112 would not take effect for one or two years, to allow time for rule making by the state and compliance among food producers. Asay noted, however, that if any parties intend to sue over the law, they likely would file suit very quickly after passage, not waiting for the effective date to roll around.


Seven Days LTE: Freedom to Slaughter

By Ben Hewitt
3/19/14
Full LTE

I enjoyed Kathryn Flagg’s article about her experience with Green Pasture Meats’ mobile slaughter unit ["A Gentler Exit," March 5]. However, Vermonters have humanely and safely slaughtered animals on-farm for generations without the benefit of fuel-guzzling, $225,000 mobile facilities that must sit idle waiting for lost federal inspectors. While I wish Mark Smith nothing but the best with his ambitious endeavor, let us not forget that the very assumption of the necessity for such infrastructure is emblematic of our severely eroded rights with regard to how we feed ourselves. According to Flagg’s article, many Agency of Agriculture officials acknowledge the existence of a so-called “black market” in farm-slaughtered meat. To those consciously participating in that market, either as producer or consumer, I encourage you to remember that you’re dealing in something far more important than meat and money. You’re dealing in your freedom.


Burlington Free Press: Vermont lawmakers consider labels on modified food

March 19, 2014
By Dave Gram
Full Article

MONTPELIER — A Senate panel heard forecasts Wednesday on how well a bill requiring labels on genetically modified foods would hold up in court if the measure becomes law.

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the threat of a lawsuit by the food or biotech industries looms large in the minds of lawmakers as they consider the bill.

In an interview afterward, Sears said lawmakers have been told it would cost the state attorney general’s office $5 million to $10 million to defend such a law in court. Sears said he would like a provision in the bill ensuring the attorney general has the funds to mount a legal defense. He said the funds could come from public and private sources.

But Laura Murphy, a professor at Vermont Law School’s environmental law clinic, said she believes if the bill becomes law, it would have a good chance of withstanding a challenge in federal court.

Murphy, who said she represents the Vermont Public Interest Research Group on the issue, described various arguments when federal law supersedes state law and how each could be defeated. She said a GMO labeling law could withstand a challenge, for instance, based on the argument that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s bar on restricting interstate commerce.

“The dormant commerce clause is something that sometimes comes up. That’s a doctrine that basically says states can’t pass laws that would unduly interfere with interstate commerce,” Murphy said in an interview. “Basically it comes down to a balancing test. And the question is whether the state’s interest outweighs any potential burden on interstate commerce.”

She said the state has a strong interest in preventing consumer confusion and deception and reducing any potential health risks from genetically modified food. She said a similar balancing test could be used to defeat First Amendment concerns about labeling requirements constituting compelled speech.


Randolph Herald LTE: Why Many People Now Choose To Drink Raw Milk

By Robert Luby
Full Article

Dear Editor:

I am writing in respectful rebuttal to Dr. M. Kathleen Shaw’s and the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association’s position on raw milk. I believe a more complete picture of this issue is in order.  What is critically missing from the VVMA’s opinion is a balanced assessment of:  the reasons why consumers choose raw milk and the short term and long term health risks of milk consumption, as well as a relative risk assessment of the consumption of raw milk versus the consumption of other animal products.

The VVMA focused only on the consumer perception that raw milk has health benefits.  It is true that scientific studies have demonstrated that raw milk is protective against the development of asthma and allergic diseases.1, 2   In addition, raw milk from properly raised animals is also full of beneficial bacteria.  Literature in the field of human nutrition is increasingly recognizing the value of eating foods with such beneficial probiotic species.

But there is also a negative reason why people are deciding not to consume conventional pasteurized milk, and this has to do with long term health effects.  While it is relatively straightforward to measure rates of acute food-borne illness which occur shortly after consumption of a particular food, it is not such a simple matter to measure the long term harms of slowly acting substances.  Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that “You are what you eat”.  In the case of conventional milk from conventionally raised animals, it is also the case that “You are what you eat eats”, and “You are what has been sprayed on what you eat eats”, and “You are what has been injected into what you eat”.

The point is that the short-term safety of any animal product depends upon how it is handled and processed.  But the safety of any animal product with regards to long term effects on human health depends upon practices of animal husbandry, an issue truly worthy of championing by an organization such as the VVMA.  Consumers of raw milk are choosing it in large part because of informed decisions based upon the superior animal husbandry practices of the farmers who produce raw milk for human consumption.

Finally, if the VVMA or any organization is concerned about the risks of acute food-borne illness due to the consumption of animal products, it must adequately explain why raw milk has been singled out.  Based on quantitative microbial risk assessment, on a per-serving basis, the risk of food borne illness from chicken is 57 to 1,181 times more likely to cause food-borne illness than unpasteurized milk.3  The consumption of hamburger is 7 to 34 times more likely to cause food-borne illness than unpasteurized milk.4

With the precarious status of the safety of our food supply in mind, (even spinach is 6 to 28 times more likely than raw milk to cause food-borne illness5,6,7), consumers must make difficult choices regarding the short term and long term health consequences of their dietary choices.  Informed professionals such as veterinarians and physicians have an obligation to represent a balanced viewpoint to assist the consumer in this endeavor.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert Luby, MD
43 Brookes Avenue
Burlington, VT 05401
802-881-1796

1. O. S. von Ehrenstein, E. et al., Clin. Exp. Allergy 30, 187 (2000).
2. A. H. Wijga, et al., Thorax 58, 567 (2003).3. Uyttendaele, et al., Int J Food Microbiol, 2006, 11(1); 149-163.
4. Cassin, M. et al., Int J Food Microbiol 1998, 4(1); 21-44.
5. Tromp, S.O. et al., J Food Prot 2010, 73(10); 1830-1840.
6. Franz, E. et al., 2010, 73(2); 274-285.                                                                                                       7. Giacommetti, F. et al., 2012, J Food Prot, 75(7); 2363-2369.

Robert Luby, MD, ABHM

Doctor Robert Luby grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and completed his undergraduate education at Dartmouth College in 1985. Columbia University was the site of his MD degree in 1989. Postgraduate training in a family medicine residency program in Seattle, Washington was completed in 1992. Dr. Luby has been board certified in family medicine since 1992, and became board certified in holistic medicine in 2002. He is among the first cohort of physicians to qualify to be certification-eligible in Functional Medicine.  His medical training has included time spent on Native American reservations and in war-torn Guatemala.

For 24 years Dr. Luby has practiced the full scope of family medicine in Latino community health centers in Massachusetts and Washington. Additionally, he has practiced in integrative health centers in Vermont and Massachusetts for over a decade.

Dr. Luby also maintains an active presence in the academic medical community. He is the Director of Outpatient Medicine, the Integrative Medicine area of concentration, and the Associate Director of the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the Lawrence, Ma. Family Medicine Residency. He holds faculty teaching appointments at Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Vermont schools of medicine.


The State: Vermont lawmaker and farmer pushes for GMO labels

By Chris Adams
March 12, 2014
Full Article

HINESBURG, Vt. — David Zuckerman, an organic farmer and state senator, is a key advocate for ensuring that foods containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such.

To him, it’s a basic right-to-know issue: Polls show that consumers want to see such labeling, so there’s no reason to deny them.

“It’s up to the consumer to decide – and they want the choice,” Zuckerman said. Right now, a GMO-labeling bill Zuckerman co-sponsored is in a Vermont Senate committee, and it represents one of the pivotal battlegrounds in the labeling issue.

After ballot defeats in California and Washington state, and nebulous legislative victories in Maine and Connecticut, Vermont represents one of the best chances for pro-labeling advocates to get a clean win. And Zuckerman would be key in helping them get it.

But even if the labeling is eventually mandated, he’s not sure how consumers will respond.

Some will use the labels and choose other products. Some might shrug, once they realize that about 70 percent of processed food contains genetically modified ingredients. Some companies might change the way they source their ingredients so they can say their products are GMO-free.

Zuckerman pointed to General Mills, one of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, which said earlier this year that there was a broad consensus among scientists that “genetically modified foods are safe” but that it still planned to change the way it sources cornstarch and sugar so it can say original Cheerios are GMO-free.

“It was partly a marketing strategy, but it shows that food manufacturers recognize there’s a reasonable percentage of the population that wants that,” Zuckerman said.

The GMO-labeling bill he introduced with several co-sponsors passed out of the Senate’s agriculture committee but still needs to make it through a second Senate committee as well as the full Senate. It faces a host of issues, including whether it would violate companies’ First Amendment rights (he says no) and whether the state would be willing to withstand any expensive legal challenge should the bill pass.

Zuckerman said he thought it could withstand the scrutiny, and he hopes it won’t contain the same kind the trigger that has bottled up legislation in other states. In Maine, for example, a labeling bill passed but goes into effect only if nearby states pass similar legislation.

“The vast majority of people support the idea,” Zuckerman said of the labeling initiative. “Not all people want to consume those foods, at least until we know more.”


Nation of Change: Europe installs raw milk vending machines, while US rules unpasteurized dairy illegal

As the U.S. government continues to issue warnings regarding raw dairy products, several European countries have done just the opposite by expanding access through unpasteurized milk vending machines, according to Wake Up World.

Compared with pasteurized and homogenized dairy, the news source argues that raw milk offers a wealth of nutrition—all without the drawbacks of oxidized fats, denatured proteins, antibiotics or growth hormones typically found in pasteurized and processed milk products.

Given the purported benefits of raw milk, multiple European nations have installed self-service vending machines that provide 24-hour access. Michel Cantaloube, who helped introduce the machines in France, the UK and Spain, hopes to expand the venture into a similar vending machine for raw yogurt.

Other countries like Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands have begun to install their own raw milk vending machines as well.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), tells a different story.

The FDA has listed raw milk’s potential mild to severe effects and issued the following warning:

  • Vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain
  • Flulike symptoms, such as fever, headache and body ache

In response, Wake Up World questioned the FDA’s stance and pointed to a recent study that indicated children who drank raw milk were 40 percent less likely to come down with asthma or allergies.

A Campaign for Real Milk, an advocacy group associated with the Weston A. Price Foundation and Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, agrees, stating raw milk:

  • Protects against infections, diarrhea, rickets, scurvy, tooth decay and tuberculosis
  • Demonstrates better child growth profiles with longer and denser bones
  • Improves vitamin A, B6 and D absorption
  • Enhances mineral assimilation through the presence of lactobacilli
  • Individuals diagnosed with lactose intolerance are often able to consume raw milk products without issue

Moreover, hundreds of testimonials support the value of raw milk in helping childhood behavioral problems, digestive disorders, failure to thrive in infants, arthritis, osteoporosis and cancer.


Organic Connections: A GMO Scientist Becomes a GMO Skeptic

Guest article by Ken Roseboro
Full Article

Belinda Martineau, Ph.D. was a genetic engineer who helped develop the world’s first commercially available genetically engineered whole food, the Flavr Savr tomato. But during the development of that tomato, she says she “was transformed from a devout believer in the promise of agricultural biotechnology into a skeptic wary of its uncertainties.”

Belinda now works in academic research. She wrote a book about the Flavr Savr and her personal transformation, First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food, and occasionally gives talks to promote discussion of the technology, “warts and all,” as she puts it. She also publishes a blog, Biotech Salon (www.biotechsalon.com), where she aims to “clear the entire situation” about the science supporting genetic engineering.

Ken Roseboro: Tell me about your involvement in developing the Flavr Savr genetically modified tomato.

Belinda Martineau: I carried out experiments and library research and coordinated outside researchers the company hired to carry out additional studies, and helped write the documents Calgene, Inc. submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate the safety of the Flavr Savr tomato.

KR: What led the Flavr Savr team to promote and label the tomato as GM?

Martineau: I give credit for Calgene’s transparency, and the decision to label Flavr Savr tomatoes as “Grown from Genetically Modified Seeds” specifically to the company’s CEO at the time, Roger Salquist. We had nothing to hide, and Roger thought consumers would be more accepting of the product if we were completely above board about it.

KR: What caused the failure of the Flavr Savr tomato in the marketplace?

Martineau: The GM trait, meant to keep tomatoes firmer while they ripened naturally on the vine, didn’t keep them sufficiently firm to allow trucking them to market on a large scale; Calgene spent more money getting the tomatoes to market in good shape than it charged for them in the grocery store.

KR: What led you to become skeptical about GM foods?

Martineau: The major incident was when the FDA asked us whether we were sure that only the DNA we intended to insert into the tomato’s DNA was actually inserted. After we answered “yes” they asked us to carry out the experiments that would demonstrate that that was indeed the case. In fact, the experiments showed that in 30% of the tomato plants, sometimes more, much more DNA—DNA that was not well characterized and usually contained an additional antibiotic resistance gene—was inserted into our plants.

KR: The Calgene scientists weren’t aware how this added DNA got into the tomatoes?

Martineau: We did not expect the additional DNA to be inserted and, as far as I know, scientists still haven’t figured out how to avoid this from happening.

There has been one case of a GM crop plant, called Bt10, which contained such extra DNA, including a gene conferring resistance to the antibiotic ampicillin. Fortunately, the crop developer pulled the product from the market.

KR: What are other risks do you see with genetic engineering of foods?

Martineau: There can be risks associated with the genes being inserted. For example, the gene inserted into StarLink corn failed multiple tests designed to determine whether it could be a human allergen. The FDA and Center for Disease Control were worried enough about StarLink corn’s possible allergenicity that the US corn crop was monitored for the presence of that GM corn for seven years after it was taken off the market. The gene in another GM corn crop, Bt176, was found to present a much higher risk to Monarch butterfly larvae than other Bt corn crops.

There are also risks associated with the fact that genetic engineers have no control over where in a plant’s DNA their gene will land and they often land in another gene, mutating that gene. Unexpected changes can occur in GM plants as a result of such unintended insertions–and other possible mutations.

KR: John Vandermeer, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, has said that genetic engineering is based on “dramatically incomplete knowledge of the genome,” which he compares to a complex ecosystem. Do you agree with that perspective?

Martineau: I agree with Dr. Vandermeer. Genetic engineering is based on the reductionist belief that taking a gene out of its context in one organism and inserting it—essentially randomly—into another organism’s genome comprises a “precise” process that requires minimal regulatory oversight before being sold in grocery stores for human food.

I heard a plant scientist claim that “we know exactly what we’re doing” with genetic engineering and then ask audience members to support grants for plant science because “there’s a lot we still don’t know about plant genomes.” It might be laughable if this situation wasn’t affecting the food system in the US and worldwide.

There are many imprecise aspects of genetic engineering, many related to our very incomplete knowledge about genetics and genomics. That is why regulation of every product of this technology should be required and why they should be labeled.

KR: What are your thoughts about labeling GM foods?

Martineau: This is America. In this capitalist society we have a right to know what we’re buying in grocery stores to feed our families. And in this democracy we have a right to vote for or against a technology with our pocketbooks. These products are labeled in some 60 other countries; they should be labeled in the United States as well.

Calgene’s tomato, the only example of a GM food that has been labeled in this country, was well received by consumers. This may have been because the company was transparent and up front with consumers.

KR: The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently formed a “Coalition for Safe Affordable Food” comprising food and agriculture industry groups to lobby the government for voluntary labeling standards and to pre-empt state labeling laws. What are your thoughts about this?

Martineau: This is just a move to undermine the labeling laws being put in place in individual states around the United States. There is no need for a federal volunteer labeling law; developers of GM foods can already voluntarily label their products just as we did at Calgene. Most Americans want GM foods labeled, they’ve indicated as much for decades now, and the FDA has failed us in this regard.

Shame on our government if it gives in to the GMA, especially after what they did (to defeat GMO labeling) in the recent Washington state election.

KR: With the polarized debate over GMO foods do you think there is room for middle ground?

Martineau: I feel I’m on the middle ground. I’m not against the use of the technology; but when science moves out of the lab and onto the plates of consumers we must be more cautious about it. We scientists must explain what is imprecise and could pose potential problems as well as what is precise about the technology so that society as a whole can make informed decisions about how to use and regulate such a technology.

There is not enough transparency about genetic engineering technology right now and that contributes to consumer wariness about it.


Seven Days: A Writer Says Farewell to Her Beef Cows — at a New Mobile Slaughter Unit

By Kathryn Flagg
3/5/14
Full Article

Slightly more than three years ago, one bull, five cows and two calves arrived at the farm in Shoreham where I live with my husband, Colin Davis. In the years since, our herd has grown to 17. We — and here the credit falls almost entirely to Colin and his father — built fences and unloaded hay. We learned how to drive cattle, to rotate pastures, to undo the mistakes made when someone (me) let the cows escape their fences. We filled water troughs and bottle-fed the occasional sick calf. And on a recent Friday, we slaughtered the first four animals from our herd of Scottish Highland beef cows.

We did it on the farm, thanks to a visit from Vermont’s first large-animal mobile slaughter unit.

A year ago, slaughtering these animals on our farm would have meant hiring an itinerant butcher, who likely would have carved the meat as a carcass hung from the bucket of a large tractor. It would have meant the final cuts, wrapped in white butcher’s paper, would have borne the stamp “Not for Sale” — in other words, only for consumption by friends and family, or for sale on the black market that many ag officials acknowledge exists.

Instead, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector looked on as butchers from New Haven’s Green Pasture Meats slaughtered three steers and one bull. The butchering happened inside a 36-foot trailer with its own generator, kitted out with clean water and electricity and heavy metal winches. In the afternoon, the meat headed to Green Pasture Meats, where it will hang and age for two to three weeks. And it most certainly will be for sale.

Just a few years after state officials and farmers bemoaned processing capacity as a major bottleneck in Vermont’s flourishing food landscape, the mobile slaughter unit — along with new slaughterhouses slated to go in across the state — is speeding traffic along.

“I think, just like we need a diversity of farms, it’s great to have a diversity of scales and models of meat processors,” said Chelsea Bardot Lewis, an agricultural policy administrator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “There have been some great, positive steps forward in terms of increasing capacity.”

The Green Pasture Meats trailer is the state’s first mobile slaughter unit intended for large animals — cows, lambs and pigs. Vermont previously experimented with mobile poultry slaughtering. In 2008, the state pooled $85,000 in legislative funding with private foundation money to purchase a custom-built, 36-foot trailer for a total cost of $93,000. The plan was to create demand for the service and then entice an entrepreneur to take over — so the state put the unit up for auction in early 2012. It went to Tangletown Farm’s husband-and-wife team of David Robb and Lila Bennett for $61,000. Last year, the farmers slaughtered 7,000 birds — mostly chickens and turkeys, but also some guinea fowl and ducks. This year they’re offering farmers custom processing under inspection.

The man behind GPM’s mobile unit in Addison County is Mark Smith, who entered the meat-processing world without much butchering experience. Smith, who’d grown up in Vermont and worked on farms, was seeking to branch out into a new business after work at his construction company slowed down. While visiting a friend who raises grass-fed beef in Colorado, Smith started thinking about the meat industry. He daydreamed about an “old-time butcher shop” where he could sell Vermont-raised beef, pork and lamb from a walk-up counter.

The dream would become GPM. But Smith quickly realized that to control the quality of meat coming into his shop, he’d need to control the slaughter and butchering, too.

“Straight-up common sense tells you that on-farm slaughter, where the animals aren’t being transported long distances … is a lot less stressful for the animals,” Smith said. He researched mobile slaughter units — MSUs, in industry shorthand — and settled on a design used in Washington State, often to slaughter livestock on islands in Puget Sound that don’t have slaughterhouses of their own.

Last May, Smith’s custom unit — a $225,000, 36-foot-long trailer — hit the road. Since then, Smith and his employees have focused primarily on slaughtering animals that they sell under their own label at GPM. They buy directly from farmers, mostly in Addison County, and sell the meat at a Route 7 storefront just north of Middlebury. Everything in their meat cases — with a few exceptions such as bacon and smoked meats — comes through their own slaughter unit.

A few months ago, the company started taking on other customers — such as Colin and me — who were looking to have a few animals slaughtered and didn’t want them trucked to another location. The MSU has also switched from state inspection (which meant meat could be sold only in Vermont) to USDA inspection.


WPTZ: Vt. Senate committee weighing GMO labeling bill

Ben & Jerry’s and other food producers called on lawmakers to pass a strong labeling bill
By Jack Thurston
2/22/14
Full Article

MONTPELIER, Vt. —A group of companies from Vermont’s food industry called on the Vt. State Senate Wednesday to pass legislation requiring food labels that will let people know if they’re eating genetically-modified organisms or GMOs. The issue is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee, after having been advanced by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Last year, the Vt. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring GMO labeling by July, 2015.

“I think consumers want to know where their food comes from and what’s in that food,” said Chris Miller, the activism manager for the iconic ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, which has pledged to have all its pints labeled as GMO-free by mid-2014. “Vermonters want to shop their values. And it’s only through a label that will allow Vermonters to be able to do that.”

Most of the processed food sold in the center aisles of grocery stores contains ingredients like corn or soybeans that had their DNA modified to enhance crop yield. Many large-scale farmers call biotechnology a boon, and government regulators have said it has been a part of our food system for two decades, presenting no known food safety issues. However, critics and a growing number of consumers remain deeply skeptical and want transparency.

Maine and Connecticut have already passed laws that would mandate GMO labeling, but they’re delaying implementation until other states sign on. Vermont’s proposed bill does not wait for other states. Attorney General Bill Sorrell, D-Vt., warned lawmakers this month that the state would likely be sued by major food producers if it required labels.

“We’ve drafted language that is constitutionally defendable,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden County, one of the bill’s biggest champions in the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee must now decide if the bill needs extra protections such as a legal defense fund or a clause that waits for bigger states to join, said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, the committee’s chairman.

The Vermont Grocers’ Association said it doesn’t have a position on whether or not food should be labeled, but insisted the issue should be a national one left to regulatory agencies. “Patchwork is not the right way to go,” said executive director Jim Harrison. “Uniform national labeling is the much more preferable way to go.”

Sen. Sears said he expects his Judiciary Committee to act early next month.


VPR: With Vt. Meat Industry Booming, Ag Agency Looks To Add Inspectors

2/18/14
By Angela Evancie
Full Article

Vermont’s slaughter and meat processing industry is booming, and meat inspectors at the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets can’t keep up.

That’s according to Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary at the Agency, who told participants at a policy roundtable at the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vermont (NOFA) winter conference on Feb. 16 that the Agency is looking to expand its staff to meet a growing demand for locally butchered and processed meat.

The Agency has requested funding to add two more inspectors, called Food Safety Specialists; if the budget is approved by lawmakers, the safety specialist ranks would grow from seven to nine.

The number of slaughter and processing facilities in the state has more than doubled since January of 2012. There are now seven facilities, up from three in 2012, with an additional five facilities proposed for this year, according to data provided by Bothfeld.

The number of processing-only facilities has also doubled, from four in 2012 to nine in 2013.

Part of the reason for the staffing increase, officials said, is that Food Safety Specialists must pay daily visits to facilities that are in operation. Meat Programs Section Chief Randy Quenneville says that Vermont’s geography makes it difficult for inspectors to travel between multiple sites in a given day.

“One inspector covering three or four processing plants in a day in itself isn’t bad,” Quenneville says. “But if you take into account the travel time, it starts to make a difference.”

Quenneville noted that existing staffing is adequate for the current number of facilities, but said that the Agency would have trouble monitoring the additional proposed facilities without extra staffing.

Inspectors also pay occasional visits to 28 custom processing operations, which butcher meat that customers have slaughtered themselves, to check sanitation and record keeping.