ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture is overhauling its Vermont Seal of Quality program after a kerfuffle this winter put the allegedly ill-managed program on the chopping block.
But now agency officials, along with Vermont producers, are heading back to the drawing board to revive — and revise — the seal of quality after legislators kept the program alive with a $50,000 appropriation in the jobs bill signed into law by Gov. James Douglas earlier this month.
The nearly 30-year-old seal is a graphic mark used on the packaging of some foods grown and made in Vermont. The seal is meant to convey that the products are of the highest quality in the state.
The Douglas administration and the Agency of Agriculture, which grants manufacturers the right to use the seal, suspended the seal of quality program in March amid concerns that it was misused and ineffective as a marketing tool. But the decision drew criticism from Vermont producers and some legislators, who argued the seal is valuable in setting apart Vermont products in the marketplace.
“The rules weren’t defined clearly enough … and they weren’t being enforced,” said Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee. “It basically got away from the agency.”
Bray said the $50,000 in funding will keep the program alive until June 30, 2011. In the interim, the agency will revise the program and write new rules.
“There are some big opportunities for it,” Bray said.
PROBLEMS WITH THE SEAL
As the program was designed, producers needed to apply to the Agency of Agriculture to receive permission to post the seal on their products. In order to do so, they need to pass a state inspection and pay a small, sliding-scale fee.
But with too few state inspectors to perform inspections or police the program, Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee said the program lost its integrity.
Plus, Agency of Agriculture Communications Director Kelly Loftus said that some businesses have been bypassing the state together, and simply affixing the seal to their products without any sort of oversight.
“It’s on things like beer and soda and dog biscuits,” Loftus said. “People mean well, but we haven’t had the staff to be able to do the inspections and do the background work that’s needed to make sure it’s not on items that it shouldn’t be on.”
The state has approved around 75 companies throughout the state to use the seal, and Loftus said it’s hard to know how many more are using the seal improperly.
In redesigning the seal, Loftus said the agency wants to give the program more teeth. The agency has already had input on the subject from leaders in France and Quebec, who have had some success with similar programs. France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) program in particular seems like it could shed light on a system that would work in Vermont.
The AOC program uses geographic indicators to label French wines, cheeses, butter and other agricultural products, and is based on the idea of terroir — the thinking that food from certain geographic regions is distinct from similar products made elsewhere.
An example of such regulation is champagne: According to regulations in place since 1936, the sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it originates from a specific region in France.
Loftus said it’s too soon to know what shape a new seal of quality program would take. But she believes in the value of such a seal, if the enforcement is in place to maintain the program’s integrity.
“There’s the opportunity for this program to help any (size) company,” Loftus said. “The Vermont brand does definitely carry weight.”
HOW MUCH VALUE?
But enthusiasm for the seal varies among manufacturers. Loftus said that maple syrup producers in the state came to the agency a little more than a year ago to nail down stricter standards for affixing the seal of quality to maple product.
The agency did just that — but in the end, only around 60 of the roughly 2,000 Vermont sugarmakers went through the process of applying for the seal of quality.
Other companies, like Cabot, which makes award-winning cheese at its Middlebury plant, have phased out their use of the seal altogether.
Cabot was one of the program’s early supporters, according to Senior Vice President of Marketing Roberta MacDonald. But as the company grew, other priorities took the seal’s place on Cabot packaging. Consumer testing showed that other labels — like the kosher and halal-approved tags — were more valuable.
“Vermont in and of itself has been a phenomenal marketing tool for us as we were getting starting,” MacDonald said. But that label has lost significance as Cabot’s reach has expanded beyond the Northeast.
What’s more, she expressed skepticism that a seal carried any more significance than the state’s general “brand.”
“You don’t need more than the word ‘Vermont,’” MacDonald said. “Vermont has a certain cachet among a certain demographic and a certain geography, but we don’t need a seal of quality of do that.”
However hard it may be to nail down the benefits of a seal of quality, other producers remain eager to keep the stamp of approval on their products.
Lincoln sugarmaker Don Gale is one of those producers. He went through the process of applying for the seal last year in the hopes the seal would be a selling point for his syrup.
Though most of his customers are repeat customers, he thinks the seal could sway new buyers.
“I think it’s a good thing, and I’d hate to see it go away,” Gale said. “From the customer’s point of view, it’s a plus. It’s one more assurance that, ‘Hey, the syrup I’m buying is good stuff.’”
Leicester sugarmaker Andy Hutchinson also uses the seal on his maple syrup. Like Gale, he said his motivation for applying for the seal and meeting with a state inspector who investigated Hutchinson’s sugarmaking operation was increased sales.
But Hutchinson said any benefits that might come from the seal will only come if the program is properly administered, and if accountability is enforced. Otherwise, he said, anyone can — and in some cases does — slap a label on their product.
“We’d like to see it stay, if it was going to have meaning,” Hutchinson said. “If it wasn’t funded fully enough … (or there) wasn’t any accountability, then there’s no purpose of the program. It’s not accomplishing anything.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.