Industry groups sued Vermont over a GMO labeling law; case could set precedent for states mulling similar legislation December 1, 2014
By Peter Moskowitz Full Article
Food activists and the industry are looking to a court case between Vermont and a major food distribution association as a bellwether for genetically modified foods.
In May the state legislature voted to require food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such. If the law goes into effect in 2016, Vermont will be the first state to require such labeling. But first it will have to stand up in federal court: The Grocery Manufacturers Association — which is funded by a coalition of companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Starbucks and Monsanto — and three other industry groups sued the state shortly after the law passed.
Now several other states with pending ballot initiatives and legislation that would similarly require GMO labeling are awaiting the district court’s decision. Arguments are tentatively scheduled for mid-December, according to Vermont’s attorney general.
“I know other attorneys general are watching this case closely,” said Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell. “Clearly other states are considering it. This is not a political issue. Most consumers think it’s important.”
If Vermont’s law is shot down in court, it would be a big win for the food industry, which has for years been trying to quash the growing push for GMO labeling. The industry argues that labeling is fearmongering, since the Food and Drug Administration considers food made with GMO essentially the same as non-GMO food.
In Vermont the industry is arguing that the state is trying to unfairly burden the business with its own labeling requirements and superseding federal regulations, which would be in violation of the Constitution’s commerce clause if it interferes with the free flow of food from state to state. The industry is also arguing that such labeling falls under political — as opposed to commercial — speech. Requiring a company to parrot the state’s political speech would be a violation of the First Amendment.
If the court upholds Vermont’s law, the case could have a domino effect across states considering GMO labeling laws. Twenty states have pushed for GMO labeling through legislatures, according to the Center for Food Safety, a pro-labeling group.
Connecticut and Maine have already passed GMO laws, but they include clauses that prevent the laws from being triggered until other states also pass legislation. Connecticut’s law require states with populations totaling more than 20 million to pass similar laws before its takes effect, and Maine’s law is in waiting until five other Northeastern states pass similar laws.
Colorado, California, and Washington have seen unsuccessful ballot initiatives pushing for labeling. Oregon activists have also tried to vote in GMO labeling. A labeling initiative was voted down in 2002, and another attempt in November is still too close to call, with votes being recounted.
Those delays would make Vermont the first state where GMO labeling initiatives would come to fruition, and activists are pinning their hopes on the court case.
“State-based labeling is something that hasn’t been really vetted by the courts,” said Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate at Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which is supporting the state with legal help in the case. “There will be more appeals [from the food industry], but this will serve as precedent.”
Grocery Manufacturers Association representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but in a statement on the suit from August wrote, “Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law — Act 120 — is a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers … The First Amendment dictates that when speech is involved, Vermont policymakers cannot merely act as a pass-through for the fads and controversies of the day. It must point to a truly governmental interest, not just a political one.”
Supporters of the lawsuit are confident they can counter the GMA’s claims effectively in court.
“The GMO bills in Vermont, Maine, Oregon — they’re 99 percent the same,” said Will Allen, the owner of Cedar Circle Farm and one of the most prominent anti-GMO organizers in Vermont. “Four states have passed essentially the same law, so it’s not a patchwork. There is a patchwork of laws in dozens of countries, but these companies, they do business all over the world.”
The science on GMOs is controversial. While the FDA considers food containing genetically modified ingredients safe, activist groups contend that not enough is known about GMOs to guarantee there will be no negative long-term effects of ingesting GMO foods. Some studies have found that GMO foods are less nutritional and can cause digestive problems in animals.
Regardless of the science, pro-labelers say it can’t hurt to give consumers more information. The public seems to agree: According to a New York Times poll conducted in 2013, 93 percent of people said foods containing GMOs should be labeled.
But Sorrell and others point out that the government requires labeling of other aspects of food. “It’s a straightforward message about what’s in the product,” he said. “We don’t think it’s an undue burden. We believe in the same way that manufacturers are compelled to list fats and sugars, governmental interest overrides First Amendment protection in this case.”
However the judge rules, the case will likely wind its way to higher courts. Sorrell and his team said they would challenge a defeat and expect the GMA to do the same.
For some activists, that’s the point of the Vermont case. Labeling proponents acknowledge that having 50 states with 50 solutions to GMO labeling would be untenable. But they’re hoping that Vermont will eventually force the Supreme Court to act on GMO labeling for the entire country.
“The GMA will fight us state by state,” said Dave Murphy, the executive director of Food Democracy Now, a national anti-GMO organization. “They’ll probably appeal it up to the Supreme Court. We understand it’s going to eventually be a federal standard.”
Three national businesses are helping to defend Vermont’s GMO labeling law. The companies told a federal court last week that the state statute, which requires food manufacturers and retailers to label certain products containing genetically modified ingredients, would not be difficult to implement.
Organic energy bar manufacturer Clif Bar and Company, filed an amicus brief in support of Vermont’s law. Rhonda Miller, the company’s senior sourcing manager, said she has 24 years of experience in packaging.
“In my opinion, there is nothing posed by the small changes required by the Vermont law that would put anyone out of business or cause an overwhelming logistical hurdle,” Miller said.
Miller of Clif Bar and Company said the label changes would take at most six months.
“In my professional opinion, a change such as the one mandated by the Vermont law would require nothing more than a simple artwork change and would not be time intensive,” Miller said.
The other two manufacturers that filed briefs supporting Vermont’s GMO labeling law were Beanfields Snacks and Ben & Jerry’s.
Four other groups filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Vermont’s labeling law: the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Food Safety represented by an attorney at the Vermont Law School, the Vermont Community Law Center, and Free Speech for People, Inc.
Attorney General William Sorrell is well aware of the high stakes involved in his defense of Vermont’s labeling law for genetically modified organisms against a lawsuit by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Across the nation, farmers, corporate executives at giant multinational food companies such as Unilever, and millions of Americans who question the health effects of genetically engineered food are watching and waiting to see what happens in the Vermont lawsuit. Oral arguments in the case tentatively are scheduled for early January.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association and several other trade organizations filed the lawsuit against the state one month after the law passed in May. The association argues that Act 120, as the law is known, violates the U.S. Constitution by compelling manufacturers to “convey messages they do not want to convey,” among other arguments.
Vermont’s law doesn’t go into effect until July 1, 2016, but the grocery association already is asking the U.S. District Court in Vermont to grant a temporary injunction to prevent the state from moving forward with implementation of the law. Sorrell’s team, which includes high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm Robbins, Russell, retained on a contract for $1.465 million, will argue to dismiss the lawsuit.
“We have committed to doing our level best to uphold this law,” Sorrell said. “This law has strong support from the Legislature and Vermonters.”
National polling shows a majority of Americans think consumers have the right to know whether genetically engineered ingredients are in the food they’re buying, Sorrell said. The Vermont law would require that processed foods made entirely or partially with genetic engineering be labeled “produced with genetic engineering,” “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be produced with genetic engineering.”
Sorrell said he’s still working out where this labeling would go on the package and how prominent the text will be.
The initial thinking is that the labeling would be near the ingredients list in about the same type size as “Serving Size” on the existing label, listing calories and other information, said Chris Miller, social mission activism manager for Ben & Jerry’s.
The ice-cream maker supports the law but is in an unusual position: Parent company Unilever belongs to the trade association that’s suing Vermont.
Miller said he sees no problem with labeling.
“Our co-founder Jerry Greenfield said it best,” Miller said. “Companies should be proud of the ingredients they use in products they sell. What does it say if a company doesn’t want to tell you?”
That misses the point of the labeling controversy entirely, countered Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, based in Washington, D.C. BIO represents the companies that develop genetically engineered foods.
Batra sees Vermont’s labeling law as a political statement — a scarlet letter, if you will — marking foods with genetically engineered ingredients as unnatural and to be avoided. And for no good reason, she said, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long ruled there is no difference between genetically engineered foods and their non-engineered counterparts.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association points out in its lawsuit that in 2013, 93 percent of the soybeans and 90 percent of the corn grown in the United States started with genetically engineered seeds. About half of all domestically produced sugar comes from genetically engineered sugar beets, and 88 percent of cotton, used for cottonseed oil, is genetically engineered. Alfalfa, canola, squash and Hawaiian papayas also have “widely used” genetic engineering, according to the lawsuit.
A hunger issue
Proponents of genetic engineering make two main arguments:
•The technique is necessary to feed the world’s growing population.
•It is environmentally beneficial.
Chris Miller of Ben & Jerry’s, and those on the other side of the GMO debate, reject these arguments.
Miller dispenses with the “feed the world” argument by pointing out that 30 percent of all perishable food in grocery stores now gets thrown away. The problem, Miller said, is not that we don’t have enough food — it’s that the food is not reaching the people who need it.
“If you look at the rates of hunger in the United States, 20 percent of children go to bed hungry every night,” Miller said. “We have a hunger issue in the United States and not because we don’t have enough food. We produce enough calories to feed everybody. The problem is access, driven by economics. A massive part of the globe lives on less than $3 a day.”
As for the pesticide/herbicide argument, Vermont State Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, lead sponsor of Vermont’s GMO labeling bill, told the Burlington Free Press in June he worries about the possible long-term effects of monkeying with a seed’s genetic makeup to increase crop resistance to pests and weeds.
Zuckerman gave the example of a naturally occurring pesticide called bacillus thuringiensis, effective for certain moths and worms, and one of the few pesticides he can use as an organic farmer. As it turns out, bacillus thuringiensis also is being used in genetically engineered seeds.
“When it’s in a plant and there for the whole season at concentrations 500 to 1,000 times higher, then those bugs can become resistant,” Zuckerman said in June. “If three bugs live out of 500,000 in the field because they happen to be genetically resistant, they’re going to find each other and breed. Eventually there will be a built-up resistance to that pesticide.”
An independent social mission
Ben & Jerry’s has found itself in the awkward position of supporting GMO labeling at the same time its parent company, Unilever, is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which brought the lawsuit against Vermont to strike down the labeling law. Unilever also contributed to a campaign to defeat a GMO labeling law proposed in California in 2012.
This is where the iconic ice cream company’s independent status within the Unilever global empire, including having its own board of directors, comes into play, Social Mission Activism Manager Chris Miller said.
“Part of the acquisition agreement between Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever allows Ben & Jerry’s to pursue its independent social mission,” Miller said. “Our support of mandatory GMO labeling comes from our progressive values.”
Those values also were behind Ben & Jerry’s refusal in 1989 to use milk produced by cows being injected with rGBH, a bovine growth hormone that increased milk production by up to 20 percent, Miller said.
Beginning in 2015, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will use all non-GMO ingredients, Miller said. It took 18 months of work to get there. Miller is careful to make the distinction that Ben & Jerry’s is not claiming to be GMO-free, which he described as a “very strong, absolute claim” that would require third-party certification.
“We’re not doing third-party certification,” Miller said. “We require our suppliers to sign an affidavit that says the ingredients they’re using are non-GMO. Our supplier has to have an affidavit from their supplier stating the same thing, all the way back to the farm.”
As for the exemption given to dairy in Vermont’s GMO labeling law — obviously a major component of ice cream — Miller said that “because a cow eats genetically engineered feed doesn’t make the milk genetically engineered.”
“We have a long history of commitment to the consumers’ right to know and transparency in the food system,” Miller said. “The current iteration is our support for GMO labeling.”
Nevertheless, Ben & Jerry’s found itself the target about a year and a half ago of a boycott called for by the Organic Consumers Association, based in Finland, Minn.
“They were unhappy with our parent company’s role in the Proposition 37 mandatory GMO labeling fight in California, which failed,” Miller said.
Public records show Unilever spent about $467,000 fighting a proposal for mandatory GMO labeling in California in 2012, out of a total of about $40 million spent by opponents of the proposed law. Proposition 37 was defeated by nearly 400,000 votes, 51-48 percent.
A total of 24 states considered GMO labeling laws in 2014, with only Vermont and Maine passing measures. In the other 22 states, legislation either was defeated, withdrawn or held.
The highest-profile defeat came in Oregon, where many observers felt a labeling law in that progressive state had a good chance of passing. The law was defeated by 809 votes out of a total of 1.5 million cast, the Oregonian newspaper reported, triggering a recount.
Ben & Jerry’s spent $303,039 supporting the proposed GMO labeling law in Oregon, according to public records. The money went to in-kind contributions for yard signs, buttons and social-media outreach, including a video that went viral. The company also put two ice-cream trucks on the road, giving out free ice cream and registering voters.
No trigger required
Aside from Vermont and Maine, only one other state, Connecticut, has passed a labeling law, and in both Connecticut and Maine, the law requires additional triggers to go into effect.
In Connecticut, four other states, one of which shares a border with Connecticut, must pass similar legislation before the Connecticut law takes effect. Additionally, the combined population of Northeastern states that enact GMO labeling laws must total more than 20 million people, based on the 2010 census. Maine has a similar trigger.
Vermont Attorney General Sorrell said those other states are just chicken.
“I suspect there was a reluctance to shoulder the responsibility for defending the law without other states having similar statutes,” Sorrell said. “An abundance of caution.”
Vermont was unhampered by any such reluctance.
“We went ahead and did it,” Sorrell said. “We’ve in the past not been afraid to get out ahead of the rest of the country. It’s our right as a state. Once in a while, our efforts get struck down. More often than not, our statutes are upheld in state and federal courts.”
The lawsuit also states that Vermont similarly has shifted the cost of implementing and defending the labeling law to “private individuals and organizations.”
“The Act creates a special fund for that purpose,” the lawsuit states. “The fund may accept an unlimited number of donations, without restrictions on who may give, or how much. The Act limits public funding of the Attorney General’s work to $1.5 million of certain surplus settlement proceeds, if any exist, as well as any additional funds the legislature may appropriate.”
This would be the “Vermont Food Fight Fund,” launched by Gov. Peter Shumlin and Jerry Greenfield with great fanfare at a June rally in front of the Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop on Church Street in Burlington.
The association’s lawsuit also notes that the labeling law bars the attorney general from using public dollars to defend the law “unless and until the private funding runs out.”
Not a minor matter
Sorrell dismissed as irrelevant the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s analysis of how the state is paying for its efforts to defend the labeling law. He said he argued strongly against hinging the defense of the GMO labeling statute on raising private money, which would establish a “really bad precedent.” The Food Fight Fund has about $400,000 in it, he said.
“The Legislature should decide what the law should be and stand behind the statute,” Sorrell said. “It’s one thing on GMO labeling, but let’s go to another issue: abortion, gay rights or whatever. Can you imagine the precedent of saying, ‘We’re going to outlaw this discrimination, but only if enough people out there contribute money to defend the statute?’ “
Sorrell said he’s not going to be “penny-wise and pound-foolish” in defending the GMO labeling law. He estimates it will cost up to $2 million to defend the law through the trial level. Whatever decision is made in federal court in Burlington, the outcome surely will be appealed, perhaps as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, Sorrell said.
Because constitutional issues are involved, Sorrell said, if Vermont loses, the state will be on the hook for the other side’s attorneys’ fees, which easily could drive the cost to the state to $5 million.
“Even putting the case on a so-called ‘fast track,’ it’s entirely possible there will be a number of years to get a final answer,” he said. “I would be shocked if there’s not an appeal.”
The U.S. Supreme Court receives about 7,000 requests each year to hear cases, and takes on only 70 to 80, Sorrell said. But if GMO labeling reaches that point, he believes the case has a good chance of being among the ones the court takes.
“Other states are closely watching the issue,” Sorrell said. “This is not a minor matter.”
Attorney General William Sorrell is bolstering his argument in federal court to dismiss a lawsuit against Vermont’s GMO labeling law by offering testimony from experts including Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s.
Greenfield says Vermont’s labeling law would not be overly burdensome on industry, as plaintiff the Grocery Manufacturers Association has claimed.
Sorrell originally filed a motion to dismiss in August after the association filed its lawsuit in June together with the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers. The industry trade group argues that Act 120, as the Vermont law is known, violates the U.S. Constitution by compelling manufacturers to “convey messages they do not want to convey,” among other arguments.
The state’s filing, made Friday in U.S. District Court in Burlington, augments Vermont’s original arguments in the motion to dismiss, including that states have “traditionally acted to protect consumers by regulating foods produced and/or marketed within their borders.”
“We have this opportunity to respond again, so we respond now with the perspectives of experts on different issues that are important, and addressing the fact that it’s not too burdensome,” Sorrell said.
The law requiring labeling of genetically engineered food sold in Vermont goes into effect July 1, 2016. The Grocery Manufacturers Association called that deadline “difficult, if not impossible” to meet, saying its members must revise hundreds of thousands of product packages.
Vermont would become the first state to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, a fact noted by singer Neil Young in a widely read blog post calling for a boycott against coffee company Starbucks.
Starbucks is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which Young refers to as a “shadowy” group that Starbucks is hiding behind to support the lawsuit.
Starbucks denied Young’s charges, made over the weekend, in a terse statement, saying the company “is not part of any lawsuit pertaining to GMO labeling nor have we provided funding for any campaign.”
“Starbucks has not taken a position on the issue of GMO labeling,” the company said. “As a company with stores and a product presence in every state, we prefer a national solution.”
Companies much closer to home also are members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, including Keurig Green Mountain (formerly Green Mountain Coffee) and Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s.
Ben & Jerry’s supports mandatory GMO labeling and began removing GMOs from its ice cream last summer. The company did not respond to a request late Monday afternoon to a request for comment regarding the lawsuit.
Keurig spokeswoman Sandy Yusen said: “We won’t speak specifically to pending legal matters except to clarify that Green Mountain Coffee is not directly funding or involved in the lawsuit, despite what some have said or implied.”
Yusen said that like many organizations, Keurig is working to understand the complexities associated with the role of GMOs in global food systems, “including challenges related to labeling, the heart of the situation in Vermont.”
She said Green Mountain Coffee beans are GMO-free.
Attorney General Sorrell said Monday he expects U.S. District Court to schedule oral arguments concerning the state’s motion to dismiss sometime in December, or no later than the beginning of the new year.
“Let’s get on with the litigation, make a decision on the motion to dismiss, then we’ll see where we stand,” Sorrell said.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture will not require certain farms in the Missisquoi Bay basin to implement agricultural practices designed to improve water quality in Lake Champlain.
Chuck Ross, the secretary of the agency, rejected a petition from an environmental law firm calling on the state to enforce new best management practices to curb manure runoff from farms in the region.
Manure and fertilizer runoff from farms is the leading cause of phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, according to the state. The nutrients cause toxic algae blooms that have become more frequent during the summer months in St. Albans Bay and Missisquoi Bay, and were blamed for a fish die-off in 2012.
The Conservation Law Foundation petitioned the state to enforce agricultural best management practices, or BMPs, that require farmers to plant cover crops and buffer areas, keep livestock away from waterways and contain manure on farms.
Under the lake cleanup program, the state will adopt new Accepted Agricultural Practices, which are designed to prevent water pollution from farms. The updates include creating minimum 25-foot vegetated buffers along streams, 10-foot buffers along ditches, additional livestock exclusion requirements in areas where erosion is frequent and a small-farm certification process.
Ross said the state does not have the resources to help farmers comply with the new BMPs. State law requires the agency to provide farmers with financial assistance.
The Agency of Agriculture will continue to accelerate compliance and enforcement activities in the Missisquoi Bay basin, he said. The state hired a small-farm inspector in November of last year who has already inspected 175 small farms in Franklin County, according to the agency.
The agencies of Agriculture and Natural Resources teamed up to begin inspecting farms in Franklin County this fall. The state has inspected 247 farms in the region, up from 211 in 2013, according to a report by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, discusses the company’s campaign for a successful genetically modified food labeling measure in its home state of Vermont, as well as one in Oregon that ultimately failed to pass on Tuesday. “We are really proud of the ingredients we use,” Greenfield says. “It is just so hard to imagine that other food companies wouldn’t want to tell consumers what is in their food.” Ben & Jerry’s plans to complete its transition to all non-GMO ingredients by the end of the year. “That transition to all non-GMO ingredients is not going to raise the cost of a pint at all to a consumer. So it can be done.”
AMYGOODMAN: Jerry Greenfield, I’d like to bring you into this discussion. You’re the co-founder with Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. Can you talk about your fight in Vermont, how you got involved with this? Now, this is a moratorium on crops in Maui. You were fighting in Vermont for labeling. That’s what failed in Oregon and Colorado on Tuesday, the attempt to get GMOs labeled. What happened to you guys at the beginning?
JERRYGREENFIELD: Well, the fight for mandatory GMO labeling has been going on for a few years in several different states around the country, and there’s actually activity still going on in 20-some-odd states. In Vermont, we went the legislative route. So, Ben & Jerry’s was actively involved in that, but there’s a great coalition here in Vermont of nonprofit groups, the Vermont Right to Know, that was incredibly active. And it was essentially citizens getting in touch with legislators. The [inaudible] Vermont said it was the most phone calls and contact they got about any issue. People are really passionate about the right to know what’s in their food. And that’s what the issue is here, is simply about the consumers’ right to know. It’s about transparency and being honest, so people have the right to choose what sort of foods they want to buy and eat themselves and feed their families.
AMYGOODMAN: At the beginning, you lost. I mean, Monsanto—explain the argument against labeling that the companies use. I mean, you weren’t even saying anything should be banned, that just that people should know.
JERRYGREENFIELD: [inaudible] great or GMOs are horrible, that you should like GMOs or not like GMOs. It’s simply about being able to know. And what the giant food industry companies—Monsanto, some of the chemical companies—say is that it’s going to add a huge cost to your food bills, which is simply not true. They spend millions of dollars trying to convince people that it’s going to make your food more expensive, whereas, in truth, changing a label on a food package costs essentially nothing. A company like Ben & Jerry’s changes its containers all the time, whether it’s for new ingredients, new marketing claims, whatever. It’s something you simply do in the normal cost of business, and there’s no increased cost at all. There’s no saying that any companies need to change their ingredients or do anything differently. It’s simply about being honest and telling consumers what’s in your food.
NERMEENSHAIKH: And, Jerry Greenfield, is Ben & Jerry’s opposed to GMOs, per se?
JERRYGREENFIELD: No, Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t really take a position on that. We always say we’re not scientists. You know, there really haven’t been independent studies. But our issue is simply about transparency, having a consumer have the right to know. You know, it’s funny [inaudible]. We are really proud of the ingredients we use, and we’re thrilled to tell people about it. And it’s just so hard to imagine that other food companies wouldn’t want to be talking about what’s in their products.
Every spring as town meeting rolls around, we hear renewed talk about “local control” — usually related to schools, roads, or mandates from Montpelier.
But so many of us don’t give a second thought to the one area where we can and should exercise far more local control: our food. In recent years we have seen a burgeoning of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups (CSAs), and local co-ops. Several towns now have year-round farmers markets.
This is a huge step toward real local control — building local food systems through awareness and knowledge about the food we eat everyday. It seems logical that we would want to know what we can about our food and have free access to local, fresh, healthy food. But it ain’t necessarily so. We have unfettered access to Cheez Whiz, even unaccompanied minors can buy it, but wait — we were talking about food.
The other day I bought a box of Wheat Chex, a reliable, unassuming little cereal. The nutrition label gives me quite a lot of information, including the ingredients, but what do I really know? Wheat Chex contains whole grain wheat. Good, but where was it grown? In the United States? Canada? China? Is it genetically modified? Probably. What about the sugar? Where was that grown and produced?
By contrast I can go to the farmers market and talk to the farmer who will tell me more than I ever wanted to know about that bunch of carrots or the life and death of the pork sausage I’m eying. I can pick up a gallon of raw (unpasteurized) milk from the farm down the road. But they tell me to put it back down; I can’t buy it after all.
It turns out that not all fresh local food is created equal, and raw milk is one such product. Only in recent years has it been legal to sell raw milk at all, largely thanks to the efforts of Rural Vermont (www.ruralvermont.org), and then only under tight constraints including a limit of 25 quarts per day, and only on the farm.
This year regulations were relaxed somewhat but are still onerous. Farmers can now bring milk to market, but I still can’t buy it until I have actually visited the farm in person, no virtual tours allowed, presumably so I can inspect the milking parlor myself. I can’t recall the last time that Price Chopper offered me that opportunity, or demanded it, or could even tell me what farm its milk came from. It also turns out that Tier II raw milk producers are required to have their milk tested twice as often as commercial dairies.
These rules, hurdles really, have their origin in some valid but outdated concerns, carried over from the days when small hill farms didn’t even have electricity, let alone hot water, sanitizers, and effective test kits. One hundred years ago bad milk was not uncommon. Things have changed since then, including that farmers are now very knowledgeable about microbes and sanitation.
The bottom line is that our farms are struggling. A Vermont farm with 60 milkers, or even 200, just cannot compete on a cost-per-hundredweight basis with a Midwestern farm milking 5,000 head. We should support healthy new products from our farms, even if that new product is actually a reiteration of what our Vermont farms have been producing for over 200 years.
So this winter check out the work of Rural Vermont, visit your local raw milk producer (inspect the milk parlor if you want to), and raise a cold glass of fresh raw milk to local control.
Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is an educator and is representative-elect to the Vermont House for the Rutland-Bennington district. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ed and Lea Arnold of Lyndonville started giving peanut brittle to family and friends as a Christmas presents four years ago. Now, they sell a range of Vermont Peanut Brittle products at farmers markets, festivals and several stores.
Under a new Vermont law, the Arnolds will likely be required to place a label on their old-fashioned confection that says, “Produced With Genetic Engineering.”
Some products contain a voluntary label indicating they were produced without GMOs.
That’s because the family company uses Karo Light corn syrup to make the candy. Processed ingredients like corn syrup are often made with genetically engineered crops, and under a new Vermont law that fact must be disclosed.
“It seems like corn is the problem child of all of it. There’s barely any corn now that is not GMO,” Lea Arnold said.
Vermont is the first state in the nation to make GMO labeling mandatory for food manufacturers and retailers. The state is now seeking comments on a set of proposed rules that are to be finalized by July 2015. Food purveyors must label certain products containing genetically engineered ingredients sold after July 1, 2016.
The Arnolds and other specialty food manufacturers gathered at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier on Thursday to hear a presentation by the Vermont Attorney General’s office on the proposed GMO labeling rules.
If manufacturers choose not to label their products, they will have to prove their products are GMO-free by either obtaining sworn statements from suppliers or by hiring a third party to verify the supply chain, under the proposed rules.
Some manufacturers already verify that ingredients are not genetically engineered so they can label their products as non-GMO.
“It’s another way of having product differentiation,” said Jack Gilbert, founder of Manchester-based Southwestern Bar and Grill, who also attended the presentation.
Five years ago, Gilbert launched an “all natural” chip, salsa and hot sauce company called Gringo Jack’s. He is in the process of certifying the products as non-GMO certified. It will cost the company about $4,000 to verify that the 23 products in his lineup do not contain GMO ingredients.
“You have to go though ingredient by ingredient,” Gilbert said. “You need to go back not only to the distributor of it to you, but sometimes further back to the main source, which on some things can be daunting. Where did your pepper come from? Where does you cinnamon come from?”
Some producers say the law should have gone further to require dairy and meat products to be labeled if the animal consumes genetically engineered feed. Dairy and meat products are exempt under the law.
“I don’t know enough about the health issues of the whole thing, but it is an environmental issue for a lot of people,” said Cheryl DeVos, co-owner of Kimball Brook Farm in North Ferrisburgh.
DeVos said her 200-cow dairy farm is certified organic by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. She said consumers who oppose genetic engineering would like to know that their dairy products did not come from animals who consumed feed containing GMOs.
She said NOFA-VT checks her feed records at least once per year.
“They’re checking our records, seeing where we’re buying out feed from, then they are going to those companies and checking where they are buying their feed from,” she said.
The Arnolds are not concerned that the labeling law will affect their business.
“A real health nut isn’t going to buy our product anyways,” Ed Arnold said. “I mean, it’s made with sugar. It’s more of a treat.”
The latest warning about the health risks associated with drinking raw milk comes from a somewhat surprising source, The Vermont Veterinary Medical Association.
“We have some concerns for a number of reasons,” said Eileen Wolfe, Orleans Veterinary Service, Inc.
Wolfe is a Veterinarian from the Northeast Kingdom. She thinks drinking raw milk, milk that is not pasteurized, is taking an unnecessary risk.
According to state law, the retail sale of raw milk is not allowed. But sales on farms, or through delivery direct from farm to consumer for personal consumption is allowed.
“It’s interesting because I have a farm stand with lots of other products, but people are really interested in the raw milk,” said Kalyn Campbell, Family Cow Farmstand.
Campbell bought this farm about a year ago from a farmer who had produced raw milk for about four years.
The Family Cow Farmstand produces small amounts of raw milk. They have about 200 customers and one of the customers told me the reason why she buys raw milk is because of her personal relationship with the farmer.
Maggie Donin, a raw milk drinker for years, says it has never made her sick, and she is not worried about the safety of that milk.
“I think for me the most important thing is to be able to come to the farm and know the farmer a friend of mine or a family member of mine something like that and be able to just see the cows producing the milk and see the land they are grazing on and the barn that they are milked in that makes me…that makes me feel a lot more comfortable than the milk I would buy in the store where I have no clue where it has been,” said Maggie Donin, raw milk drinker.
All milk producers are required to have their milk tested in a USDA approved lab, twice a month.
“And you know every dairy farm tests their milk because nobody wants milk that is not safe, so every dairy farm tests their milk. Ours is tested at a stronger, a higher standard than most milk and there is more penalties if you have a bad test…no I have never had a bad test,” said Campbell.
Still the VVMA says, why risk it?
It is state law that farms doing direct milk sales post signage informing the public of potential health risks, which the state says allows consumers to make the choice on whether or not to drink raw milk.
For years people living in Rutland have had to drive as far as Castleton or Tinmouth to buy their milk. Why? If a person wanted to follow family tradition and/or had a preference for farm fresh (raw and unpasteurized) milk — the only legal way they could get that milk was to go to a farm that sold it.
Over the past decade, the state of Vermont has undergone a major shift in how it regulates the sale of raw milk. Previous to now, sales have been hampered in part by rules that were outdated and restricted of farm sales and deliveries. But thanks to advocacy groups such as Rural Vermont, things have started to change.
New legislation that went into effect on July 1, 2014, now allows people to get farm fresh milk at farmers markets. There are a few tricks/small hoops to jump through along the way. But the convenience provided by this service will be a big improvement for those who once trekked out to a farm to pick it up directly.
Here’s how it works. A person interested in purchasing milk for pickup at a farmers market will need to pay a visit to the farm from which they intend to purchase. Customers then need to pre-order the milk for pickup at the market — no buying on the spot. These two requirements satisfy the state’s intent that a purchaser of raw milk be fully informed about the conditions of the farm from which they are purchasing the milk. The reason for this “precaution” is that for every person who swears by the high nutrition content and quality of farm fresh milk, another person is convinced that unpasteurized milk is potentially harmful. The legislation has strived to find a balance between these opposing viewpoints.
Currently, thanks to Larson Farm in Wells, customers can get their milk at Rutland’s Winter Farmers Market on Saturdays or Dorset’s Winter Farmers Market on Sundays. Larson Farm, run by Cynthia and Rich Larson, is a family- operated farm with a small herd of Jersey dairy cows. A visitor will find a well-kept barn powered by solar panels and a clear concern for keeping the milk clean and delicious. Aside from the stunning views on their property, customers will also find a variety of other farm fresh products such as eggs and meat available.
“The new law pushed forward by Rural Vermont is a major move toward more consumer choice,” Rich Larson said. “Our raw milk is nutritious and delicious with all the good enzymes that assist in digestion. Informed, health-conscious people are catching on to the benefits of unpasteurized milk, and now it is much more convenient to pick it up at the local farmers market.”
The couple, as well as their daughter Mercy, are passionate about bringing a high-quality product to customers. They will be personally attending the markets, meeting their customers, and sharing information about their farm.
Our family lives within a 15-minute drive of this farm, so we’ve been enjoying their milk for years. Our kids drink it regularly (and that of Thomas Dairy, which we also buy, and I enjoy it in my morning coffee on a daily basis.
I already buy 2 gallons a week, but I may need to start getting more. After attending the Fermentation Festival that Rutland Area Farm and Food Link co-sponsored this past weekend, I now have a simple recipe for making yogurt that was shared by Leslie Silver and Michael Beattie who have been making yogurt at their home for years. They made it seem so easy. I can’t wait to give it a try!