Proposed Food Act Would Overturn Some Safety Laws

Jul 20, 2006 10:09am

Many existing state laws on food safety will be overidden if a bill making its way through the Senate, which aims to streamline regulations on food production and labeling, is passed. Among the laws that would be overridden by the National Uniformity for Food Act is California’s "Proposition 65," which requires stringent labeling of products that may cause cancer or harm  reproductive systems. "The goal of Proposition 65 is to create an incentive for food companies to remove cancer-causing substances from their products or those which cause birth defects," said Bruce Silverglade, legal director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Silverglade said the federal government’s response to recent studies reporting high levels of mercury in tuna and swordfish was not enough. The FDA "simply put out some press releases" advising women  and young children not to frequently consume these fish because of possible harm from mercury contamination. "Under Provision 65, California went for stronger action, warning pregnant women on labels," he said. "California could not have taken any of those actions if the National Uniformity for Food Act was in place." According to 39 state attorneys general who opposed the bill after it passed through the House in March, 200 food safety state laws would be eliminated.  Proponents of the bill concede that some current laws would be overridden and that Proposition 65 would be one of them, though they say the number of state laws that would be eradicated is closer to 11. Those in favor of the bill say that if the law is implemented, its positive effects will outweigh any losses from the state laws that will be overturned.  Stephanie Childs, spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says that the improvement of state-federal communication is essential because "something that is unsafe in one state is also unsafe in another."  Under the bill, states can petition the federal government to examine their law and implement it nationally.    But some say the petition clause is costly and bureaucratic. Ed Hopkins of the Sierra Club estimates that the petition mechanism could cost the federal government $100 million to review state petitions from 2006 to 2011. "After overriding state laws, the bill provides a petition process which would force states to go through an expensive bureaucratic process to approve any new state food safety or warning label laws," said Hopkins. But beyond the additional costs, the opponents’ main concern is the prospect that safety would be compromised.  Hopkins thinks the new federal law is a poor substitute for the state laws. "Under this bill, Congress would preempt state laws and put no new consumer protection in their place.  That creates a huge gap in our food safety and consumer protection laws," said Hopkins. There will be a hearing on this before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions this summer.

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