Bill Would Standardize Warnings on Food, Drink

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

A bill poised to pass the House tomorrow would impose uniform safety warnings and labeling rules on food and beverages nationwide -- a significant change from current practices that the food industry argues will help consumers but many state agriculture and health officials fear will significantly reduce their ability to protect the public.

The bill, which has 226 co-sponsors in the House, would amend the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to supersede existing state legislation and practices on food-warning labels. It would also require states to petition the Food and Drug Administration to restore laws and regulations they currently have.

Some of the state laws that could be affected cover farm and food plant inspections, whereas others involve rules on shellfish, dairy products, allowable levels of arsenic and other contaminants in bottled water, lead in food and serving dishes, and whether salmon has to be labeled as wild or farmed. Numerous states have food-safety laws that are considerably tougher than federal standards.

The House bill has been promoted for several years by a coalition of food companies and producer trade associations. In a letter to Congress last month, the coalition wrote that "consumers deserve a single standard when it comes to food safety, and this bill will allow states and the FDA to work collaboratively in establishing sound food safety policies that benefit, not confuse consumers."

The legislation has never been aired in a public hearing. But with a majority of members as co-sponsors, supporters said they expect the bill will pass tomorrow.

Faced with that prospect, opponents held a news conference yesterday to attack the proposed National Uniformity for Food Act as a dangerous effort to undermine state laws that protect consumers. Among the most fervent opponents were spokesmen for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the Association of Food and Drug Officials -- bipartisan groups representing state governments.

"About 80 percent of food-safety inspections are done on state and local levels . . . and we are extremely concerned this bill will take away our ability -- preempt our ability -- to provide these services," said Charlie Ingram, legislative and regulatory affairs director for the agriculture departments organization. "The legislative language is very broad."

Bill Lockyer, the Democratic attorney general of California, said, "This is a total disgrace." He accused Republicans in Congress of being a "rubber stamp for big business who, while claiming they need uniformity, are trying to invalidate consumer environmental and public health laws."

A California law that requires makers of food and drink to disclose any cancer- or birth-defect-causing substances in their products is at the center of the dispute. Passed as a public initiative in 1986, Proposition 65 has been hailed by some as a pioneering effort to promote food safety and as dangerous and scientifically flawed by others.

The House bill, which would greatly limit the reach of Proposition 65, is sponsored by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.). The bill is co-sponsored by a majority of Republicans and a total of 40 Democrats.

Sylvia Warner, press secretary for Rogers, said the bill is needed to set uniform safety laws in areas of food regulation where they do not now exist: "What we're saying is that there should be the same standards across the nation, not the hodgepodge that now exists."

She said that opposition to the bill is based on misinformation. She said Rogers opposed calls for a public hearing on the bill because there "has already been a considerable amount of discussion and vetting in committee."

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