Viewpoint: What’s in the food? We may never know

The arrogance of this government was demonstrated once again earlier this month when the U.S. House ignored 50,000 letters and phone calls from the Organic Consumers Association, and a like number from other groups, and passed a bill that bars local and state requirements for food safety labels.

This legislation—the National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005—will remove more than 200 state requirements for labeling to ensure food safety and public health.

The bill, known as H.R. 4167, has four versions before the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It is opposed by most environmental groups, Democratic legislators and a majority of state attorneys general. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates it would cost taxpayers $100 million over the next five years, with unknown additional costs to the federal, state and local governments.

Environment News Service reports Rep. Henry Waxman, Democrat from California, said there have been no hearings at all on this bill. The measure was introduced last October by, yep—a Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan.

Waxman said: “Dozens of public health and environmental groups, 39 state attorneys general, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and the Association of Food and Drug Officials have all expressed their strong opposition to this legislation, but they have never been given an opportunity to explain their concerns to Congress.”

The bill reads: “In general, no state or political subdivision of a state may, directly or indirectly, establish or continue in effect under any authority, any notification requirement for a food that provides for a warning concerning the safety of the food, or any component or package of the food, unless such a notification requirement has been prescribed under the authority of this Act and the state or political subdivision notification requirement is identical to the notification requirements prescribed under the authority of this Act.”

In less windy terms, that means you won’t get a good deal of information you should have in order to make an informed judgment about a food product and whether it is desirable for your health. The scheme in this bill, under the guise of having a uniform labeling system in the nation, is really a corporate protection plan for the food industry.

Tom Udall, Democratic congressman from New Mexico, observed: “This legislation is vaguely written and jeopardizes consumer protections. The impact of certain provisions in this bill on state and local regulations is ambiguous at best, and state and local governments—who are in charge of 80 percent of food inspections—will lose significant authority to protect their citizens.”

State’s rights are being targeted by this measure. The legislation would shift the power from the states to the federal government, undermining states’ ability to prepare for and respond to terrorist threats to the food supply; prevent states from requiring consumer notifications about health risks from certain foods; and will create a new federal bureaucracy to review and potentially disapprove, new state food safety laws.

Whoopee, it’s Christmas on Capitol Hill! Just as this administration has built another layer of ineffective, expensive bureaucracy with the Department of Homeland Defense, the conservative principle of smaller government is again being shattered by federal interference and malignant growth, resulting in FEMA-like confusion and ineffectiveness. The Republican Congress and Bush administration just keep on giving themselves more centralized power.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has made a preliminary study of this potential law. CSPI said it would pre-empt shellfish safety standards in 16 states, affect milk safety laws in all 50 states and also would have an adverse effect on restaurant and food service establishment safety laws in all states.

The Act, as it stands, provides no specific replacement law at the federal level.

This legislation also would target a law limiting the amount of toxic lead allowed in candies, outlaw a law requiring warnings to consumers about excessive levels of toxic chemicals in foods that can cause cancer, birth defects or developmental problems, and laws mandating the labeling of fish as wild or farm raised. On all those things, they just aren’t going to tell you.

Illinois is one of two states that have laws on egg safety; the other is Arkansas. Illinois regulates egg processing to reduce the risk of microbial contamination. That regulation would be out the window. Arkansas warns consumers to keep the eggs refrigerated at or below 45 degrees.

In summing up, CSPI said: “This legislation would enact the most sweeping overhaul of food safety laws in decades, preempting at least 196 state laws that we know of. While backers are selling this legislation as a ‘common-sense’ measure to ‘help consumers make educated decisions,’ in fact, it would eliminate many types of important notifications currently available to consumers under state laws to help them make informed decisions.

“It also goes far beyond standardizing labeling requirements by pre-empting numerous state safety standards for foods such as milk, eggs and shellfish, and laws authorizing inspection and protection of certain foods, restaurants, schools, nursing homes, and other food service establishments. States have long had primary responsibility for our nation’s food safety enforcement, and it is in the public’s interest to retain states’ authority to be stricter than the federal government in order to protect us all.”

Members of the U.S. House received a letter from the National Association of State PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups). There are 30 of these groups nationwide.

The letter said: “The state pre-emption provisions in this bill are based on the false assumption that the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture have enacted adequate food safety and labeling standards that fully inform and protect consumers. Unfortunately, this often is not the case. In the absence of adequate federal regulations, numerous state and local governments have passed strong food safety laws designed to safeguard public health that could be affected by federal pre-emptive legislation.”

Erik Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, stated: “The House is trampling crucial health safeguards in every state without so much as a single public hearing. This just proves the old adage ‘money talks.’ The food industry spared no expense to assure its passage.”

The corporations rule! If you don’t like what’s happening here, contact your congressman and senators before they and we swallow something lethal.

From the March 22-28, 2006, issue

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