National Uniformity for Food Act

This month’s Consumer Reports has an urgent warning:

If you suspect it was something you ate, you are not alone. More than 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur each year, 325,000 people are sick enough to be hospitalized, and 5,000 people actually die. But most of us just suffer through the discomfort, vowing never again to eat the chicken salad, raw oyster, or whatever it was we think made us sick.

State and local health departments could do more to protect us from food-borne illness. But the food industry has other ideas; it’s pushing for state and local agencies to do less. And it may just succeed.

In March 2006, the food industry, led by processors like Heinz, Coca-Cola, and Kraft and supported by the National Fisheries Institute and the International Dairy Foods Association, used its considerable lobbying muscle to get the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the National Uniformity for Food Act. The name of the bill is deceptive; while it seems to make sense to have uniform standards nationwide, in fact, this law would be devastating to food safety.

The reason is that the bulk of the job of keeping our food safe is handled by state and local agriculture and health departments, operating under laws that fill in for the many deficiencies and huge gaps in federal regulation. But the act nullifies food-safety or labeling requirements that are not identical to Food and Drug Administration rules or regulations, even where no federal standards exist.

This sounds rather ominous, doesn’t it? Evil corporations trying to pawn off bad food on unsuspecting citizens! Using their evil lobbying muscle, no less!

Then again, isn’t it Congress’ job to regulate interstate commerce? Shouldn’t a company that makes, say, ketchup in Pennsylvania or soft drinks in Georgia be able to ship those products across state lines without being subject to 51 different sets of regulations? Or, conceivably, thousands if local governments get into the act?

John Frydenlund, an evil lobbyist (probably wearing Gucci shoes, although I have no independent confirmation of this), notes that the other side has their own evil lobbyists. (That’s kind of confusing, I know, but sometimes both sides of an issue are “special interests.” It’s like Super Villain Team-Up. But I digress.) Frydenlund cites the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the group that attacks everything from soft drinks to movie popcorn, as a prime example. Noting that they have largely failed to convince the federal Food and Drug Administration of their case, they have turned to the states. They’ve had some success. He notes California’s efforts at forcing labeling of the potential healh effects of acrylamide, “a natural by-product” of cooking “certain foods like asparagus, cereal grains, and potatoes at high temperatures” and New Mexico’s pending “bill to ban aspartame, the sweetener used in many diet sodas and low-calorie foods, because of recurrent allegations that it causes some type of cancer.”

Frydenlund argues that, “Trial lawyers in California and state legislators in New Mexico shouldn’t be making food policy that affects all Americans.” How so? Because, “if the companies that make these products have to add warning labels in California, they’ll have to do so in other states as well or risk additional lawsuits across the country.” That stands to reason. Putting a label on Lay’s potato chips saying “Making these your sole dietary intake could kill you” would simultaneously discourage people from buying potato chips and would constitute an admission of fact.

Many conservatives will no doubt balk at the idea of Congress giving FDA additional regulatory authority. But this is one of those rare cases where such regulation is warranted. Through Prop 65, California is able to impose its will on all of the other states and impact businesses and products that are being sold nationally. It’s precisely this sort of meddling in national commerce that helped spawn our Constitution in the first place.

Quite right. Asserting federal supremacy–and denying states jurisdiction–in something that has always been a federal responsibility is perfectly reasonable. So is having a single, scientific standard for food labeling.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

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  4. John Burgess says:

    Pennsylvania got into the food regulation business early; that’s why you see PA Dept. of Ag. on so many food labels. But the PA standards have more or less stood in for national standards above and beyond what the federal USDA has required. Maybe PA and CA should duke it out to see who gets priority?

    CSPI is a hack organization. I met their director, Jacobson, some 30 years ago and he was as officious then as now. They get their knickers–and I assume colons–in a twist at the least provocation. And that least provocation usually turns out to be worthless in the end, anyway. I think single-interest organizations like CSPI are absolutely as corruptable–and often as corrupt–as any big business you’d like to name.

  5. madmatt says:

    Yes, because Bush’s appointees have done so well with managing drug safety (Vioxx)lets have them set the standards for food equally low. Personally the more regulation of what chemical crap is being put into my food the better. The FDA has already ruined “organic” standards so that the food giants can sell their crap under a misleading label. Remember when lead and asbestos were thought to be harmless!

  6. Steven Plunk says:

    Lead and asbestos haven’t hurt me.

    Is the Vioxx situation the fault of Bush appointees or long term civil service employees at the FDA? As for misleading labels, I had given up on manufacturer claims many years ago. Caveat emptor or whatever it is.

    The simple answer concerning who should handle food regulation is no one. The relationship should be between the seller and buyer with any disputes falling under tort law. Simply, you hurt me with your product and you’ll be responsible. Isn’t that going on already even with government regulators?

    The federal and state governments have both proven to be poor managers of food quality while the free market has done a fine job. Both governments fall prey to lobbying from both sides of the issue without really getting input from the average consumer. The input from the buyers come when they buy.

    Remember Alar? The food police did a great job for the public on that one. They get their money from scaring the public so you can count on another scare coming soon.

    The “organic” people want standards that protect market share and give the impression that their food is better without proof. Why should a government give them that sort of special treatment? It’s no different than the standard puffery in labeling and advertising.

    No, lets’ keep government out it as much as possible. Federal, state, and local, just stick to the basics of governance.

  7. John Anderson says:

    If I beleived the Federal agencies would be more scientific than the typical state, I might not worry about having a single standard. Or even if all agencies were funded with the equivalent of the dropped state requirement.

    But after years of seeing government agencies throwing away science and gobs of the funding they do get, I remain leery. The FDA is one of the better ones, when problems are noted it is usually the result of underfunding (and occasional political interference), but even it has come up with the occasional lulu.

    Not that I love California’s excessive influence and idiocies, especially in combination…

    Oh, Penna. is a red herring: that “reg PA agricultural” tag means registered as a food supplier, not necessarily regulated except as to the content of the sold item. Out-of-state firms must register, but PA does not send inspectors out to Kansas to check the way corn or wheat is grown.

  8. John Burgess says:

    Is Vioxx actually a problem? Some lawyers certainly seem to think so, but the science I’ve seen is ambiguous at best.

    I do remember Alar and that’s why I think it is best to have a single, federal entity that determines the safety of drugs and food additives to the best of available science at the time.

    Corporations that rely on federal guidelines to assure the safety of their products should never be held culpable because later science changes its view. That includes asbestos, lead, and drugs.

  9. How about we have a Texas cage match of evil lobbyist to settle this. Two sides go in, only one side comes out.

  10. Phonono says:

    {~} Hmmm… national uniformity super-processed food… {~}…

    Le gouvernement des États-Unis semble vouloir s’embarquer dans un projet qui devrait alarmer plus d’un citoyen consciencieux. Non je ne……

  11. McGehee says:

    How about we have a Texas cage match of evil lobbyist to settle this. Two sides go in, only one side comes out.

    “One side comes out???” YAJ, you’re obviously soft on Evil Lobbyists!