March 26, 2009

Food Safety, all the rage

Our own Roger Allbee in this morning's Burlington FreePress. Just be aware that his reference to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) comes from the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN).

Good Agricultural Practices are "practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products" (FAO COAG 2003 GAP paper).

So, in other words, the UN is driving the standards of agriculture in Vermont and Roger Allbee is a part of its implementation.

My Turn: Food safety more important than ever

Even in dark economic times, there is a strong positive energy and passion for agriculture in Vermont. This passion was highlighted by the nearly 100 people who turned out to testify about agriculture at a public farm forum held by the Legislature recently.

The variety of topics and concerns brought up as well as the individuals in attendance underscore the diversity of agriculture in Vermont and the vital role it plays in our communities, society and economic well-being. A recent survey showed Vermonters (over 97 percent) place great value for their quality of life on the state's working landscape and heritage.

Agriculture means big business to Vermont. The dairy industry alone contributes over $2 billion to Vermont's economy, with over 15,000 jobs directly or indirectly associated with agriculture. And it is critical that we maintain current food safety standards in Vermont.

Recent U.S. Census figures show that agriculture is indeed growing and expanding in Vermont. The number of farms increased by 6 percent from 2002 to 2007, with a trend toward starting and operating smaller, diversified farms. Vermont is at the vanguard of emerging sectors like agricultural tourism, New England wine and spirits production, artisan cheese, and the high-quality specialty foods that have created a brand name for our state around the world. Vermont's farmers are both the traditional center of our communities and our greatest entrepreneurs.

Today we are seeing a return of consumers to buying local. I call this a "renaissance of the past." The excitement and passion expressed by our farmers is mirrored in consumers. This excitement is particularly strong as consumers return to buying local, learning where their food comes from and developing new skills in working with locally available ingredients. Increasingly, we are also creating long-term customers from visitors who enjoy a Vermont experience and continue to buy Vermont products, often online, after they have left.

Vermont's reputation for quality and the highest of standards is why companies locate here -- to capitalize on the Vermont brand name. And consumers seek Vermont products because they know they are fresh and safe.

But we have also learned from our past. Some issues raised at the farm forum included regulations in relation to dairy and meat processing in the state. Over the years, safety measures have been developed to protect consumers' health and our food supply, and that protects our producers, as well. In fact, many retail outlets are now requiring local producers to obtain Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification before they will sell their products. As a state, we need to do everything in our power to make sure Vermont products are safe, consumers are protected, and farmers have the ability to produce the high-quality products we are known for.

Over 60 percent of milk and dairy products produced in Vermont are consumed by several million people within a few hours of Vermont. Companies like Ben & Jerry's, Cabot Cheese, Shelburne Farms, Grafton Cheese, Vermont Butter and Cheese, the many small artisan cheese makers in the state, and the numerous specialty food producers depend immensely on the Vermont name and thus the Vermont brand. In this time of increased concern over food safety, now is not the time for the Legislature to loosen food safety standards in Vermont that could jeopardize Vermont's good reputation in these and other markets.

Roger Allbee of Townsend is the secretary of the Agency of Agriculture

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