U.S. House Votes to Nullify 200 State Food Laws
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
UPDATED March 9 — At least 200 state laws on food safety and labeling — from Alabama's nutritional standards for grits to the way Wisconsin labels cheese and smoked meats — would be undermined by a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday (March 8).
On a 283-139 vote, the House turned aside protests from 39 state attorneys general and a broad coalition of environmentalists and consumer protection groups to send the measure to the Senate, where no companion bill has yet been introduced.
The food industry and the bill's sponsor argue that the legislation will unify a patchwork of state laws that are costly to business and confusing to consumers. But a report by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that some 200 state laws would be trumped by federal standards, including shellfish safety standard laws in at least 16 states and milk safety and restaurant laws in all 50 states.
The House did accept a Democratic amendment Wednesday to allow states to retain their current warnings about mercury in fish.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, is the main sponsor of the bill, titled the National Uniformity for Food Act , which will standardize food labeling and require states to petition the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for existing safety regulations that are more stringent than the national standards. States also will be able to ask the federal government to enact a national warning for a product.
Backlash to the bill has been broad-based and includes 39 state attorneys general who have signed a letter urging Congress to reject the measure. The Association of Food and Drug Officials and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture also oppose the bill, as does the nonprofit Consumers Union, the NRDC and the National Environmental Trust.
A letter to Congress from the National Conference of State Legislatures said that the proposed law "preempts important state and local food safety laws and compromises the ability of state food safety officials to carry out their jobs."
"It is ironic to think that a bill which purports to regulate labeling of food products and to mandate truthful, uniform labeling is itself being improperly advertised by some of its proponents," Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett (R) said at news conference March 7 by a bipartisan group of attorneys general.
"We need to remember that it is the states that have traditionally regulated food products to make sure that they are safe. It is the states that have a history, for at least a hundred years, of making sure that its consumers are protected, not the federal government," Bennett said.
Opponents argue that the bill is aimed at a 20-year-old California law approved by voters as Proposition 65, which mandates that food producers reveal all products that contain toxins known to cause cancer or birth defects.
But the attorneys general added that a wide array of laws in other states are also affected. Utah Attorney General Mark Shertluff (R) said that his state's beekeeping regulations could be endangered. "In Utah, we have county bee inspectors who know their business. ... We don't want the federal government stepping in and trying to do the job of our county bee inspectors. So, federal government, keep your hands out of our honey jar."
Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager (D) said: "I would be hard-pressed to think that there is anybody in the federal government who is going to be able to determine whether or not brats have an appropriate fat content and an appropriate water content."
"In Wisconsin, these sorts of things are important to us. They're things that are regulated, and they're things that are somewhat unique to our state, and we'd like to keep it that way," Lautenschlager said.
Lobbyist Stuart M. Pape, representing the Grocery Manufacturers Association, counters that the attorneys general are engaged in a political turf battle that has nothing to do with food and consumer safety.
"It is perfectly natural. There should be nothing surprising in the fact that state attorneys general object to a federal law that would preempt their authority. Every time the federal government considers a law that has preemptive effects, that is their reaction," Pape said.
The grocery manufacturers say that under the bill, food safety standards would be based on peer-reviewed, published scientific literature, "not politics or fads."
Rogers, the bill's main sponsor, maintains the FDA has been principally responsible for setting food safety standards, including enforcing the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act and the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
The FDA is a scientific, regulatory and public-health agency that oversees items accounting for 25 cents of every dollar spent by consumers, according to the agency. Its jurisdiction encompasses most food products outside of meat and poultry, which is regulated by the U.S. Agriculture Department, as well drugs, medical devices and cosmetics. Agency scientists evaluate applications for new human drugs and biologics, complex medical devices, food and color additives, infant formulas and animal drugs.