Congress Set to Trump States on Food-Safety Laws
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The business news starts with the warning labels on the food you buy.
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INSKEEP: The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on a bill that would change food warning labels. It would require states to follow federal rules in determining which foods carry warning labels. The food industry says greater uniformity will end consumer confusion. State officials and consumer groups say it'll end efforts to safeguard public health.
NPR's Greg Allen has more.
GREG ALLEN reporting: California goes further than any other state in the country in requiring warning labels. Browsing through a supermarket in the golden state, a shopper might notice signs warning of the health risks of consuming swordfish, alcohol, even certain fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Under Proposition 65, passed in the 1980s California requires businesses to notify consumers if any potentially harmful chemicals are present in their products. Currently, there are more than 700 substances covered under the law.
Proposition 65 is one of the reasons why a large and powerful group of manufacturers, food processors and retailers is pushing for federal legislation that would override state labeling laws. The National Uniformity for Food Act would require states to follow federal guidelines in food safety labeling, immediately superceding Prop. 65 and some 200 other state laws.
Stephanie Childs is with the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Ms. STEPHANIE CHILDS (Grocery Manufacturers Association): We believe it's important to assume that consumers in all 50 states have the same information available to them about the safety of their products. What this legislation does is ensure that the states and the federal government are working together to bring the best science to the national level.
ALLEN: Childs says the measure would not affect state inspections and labeling for sanitation reasons or fact-based labeling. Alaska's requirement, for example, that farm-raised salmon carry that designation. And she says states would be able to petition the Food and Drug Administration for exemptions from the law.
Even so, opponents worry the bill might actually weaken consumer protections. State officials are among those most opposed. They worry it will cripple their efforts to regulate food safety.
Charlie Ingram is with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
Mr. CHARLIE INGRAM (Liaison, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture): We are concerned that this will hamper the state's ability to carry out the programs and laws and rules to protect the food supply. And it sets up a cumbersome, bureaucratic petition process that states would have to go through to get federal approval before they could do their work.
ALLEN: An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office says the way the bill is written says it's not clear whether it applies just to labeling or whether it would apply more broadly to other aspects of food safety regulation, like inspections.
Consumer groups have another concern. Susanna Montezemolo of Consumer's Union says states like California often lead the way on environmental and consumer issues and this bill would stop them from adopting state laws that are considerably more stringent that federal laws. That, she says, would hurt consumers.
Ms. SUSANNA MONTEZEMOLO (Policy Analyst, Consumer's Union): The problem is that the federal government, in so many instances, just hasn't done the work. And when they have done the work, it's often weaker than the work the states have done. So the standards would overall be lower. We think it would lead to more food-borne illnesses and certainly, all the labeling laws that have been enacted in the state level would be wiped out.
ALLEN: Montezemolo thinks she knows why there's been some confusion over what the bill would and would not do. Although it's been introduced in every Congress since 1998, it's never yet received a hearing either in the House or the Senate. If the effort to supercede state food safety laws does pass in the House, opponents say it still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, in part because of strong opposition from California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
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