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.