Food for Thought #8: Keeping Food Safe – Whom Do You Trust?

Consumers often take it for granted that the food they find on supermarket shelves is safe. Certainly there are safeguards ordinary individuals take when shopping – seeking out brightly colored vegetables, ensuring that meats look and smell fresh, doublechecking expiration and sell-by dates on packages – but on the whole, a basic assumption exists that if an item is available for sale, local, state and federal regulations exist to ensure that what we buy is safe.

That assumption could vanish if certain elements in the US Congress get their way. Up for consideration in the House of Representatives is resolution 4167, the National Uniformity for Food Act. The idea behind the measure is simple: If passed, it would amend the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to nullify any state and local food-safety laws that are more stringent than those imposed by the federal government. More than 150 regulations across all 50 states would be affected – and there could be an impact on Americans’ health throughout the nation.

I can sense the chills running down the backs of my liberal readers. Don’t assume that this is some right-wing plot to appease the food-industry giants HR 4167 surely would benefit. The bill was introduced by two House representatives: the largely right-wing, pro-business Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) and his political polar opposite, the largely left-wing, usually pro-consumer Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY). There is big bipartisan support for the measure; at last count, more than 200 House members have signed on as co-sponsors. Last December, HR 4167 won House Energy & Commerce Committee approval, paving the way for its consideration by the full House.

Backers say the lack of nationwide food standards creates confusion for consumers. Streamlining the laws, they argue, will give the same protections to every citizen.

But what does that mean for localities that face different dangers or have a stronger commitment to public health than other areas? Take, for instance, the case of California: State Attorney General Bill Lockyer recently urged the California congressional delegation to oppose the bill because it “would drag our public-health protection laws down to the lowest common denominator.”

The resolution would strike down California’s 20-year-old Proposition 65, one of the most stringent food-safety laws in the land. The proposition requires companies to place warning labels on products containing chemicals known to cause cancer or harm the reproductive system, and its supporters insist that it has been enormously successful in protecting public health from dangerous substances like lead in imported candy and mercury in fish. Prop 65 has also caused conflict between federal and state regulators.

One example: California’s French fry fight. The state and feds are not in agreement on the dangers of cancer-causing chemicals in potato chips and French fries. Last summer, Lockyer sued nine manufacturers of potato chips and fries, requiring them to warn consumers that some of the food products contain acrylamide, a known carcinogen. Under state law, manufacturers must indicate on food labels whether the chemical is present; the state argues that a single serving of French fries contains 80 times the amount of acrylamide allowed in drinking water and that consumers have a right to know whether it exists in the food they purchase. Federal officials are still investigating the matter and the FDA has yet to issue warnings about acrylamide. Under the proposed National Uniformity for Food Act, businesses would not have to inform consumers of the substance’s presence in a product and California would be barred from further pursuing its anti-acrylamide lawsuit.

A provision exists in HR 4167 permitting states to petition for specific exemptions, but Lockyer believes the federal government will favor sticking with dumbed-down rules. He compares the dispute over the bill to the fight for local control between American revolutionaries and the British crown, warning, “The result will mean less disclosure about toxic chemicals in our food, less incentive for manufacturers to remove them and less protection for public health.”

And no one can argue that food manufacturers and suppliers would not be big winners if the legislation wins passage.

A coalition of national food groups support the proposal, saying that having different food-safety laws in different states hurts businesses’ bottom line.

From the Orange County Register:

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have different labels on different products going to different states,” Susan Stout of the national Grocery Manufacturers Association said. “If the science is there to merit a warning then it ought to be done [nationally].”

But Lockyer and some advocates say state initiative is imperative because federal regulators have been slow to act. He lauded the state’s anti-toxics law for pushing the federal government to limit arsenic in bottled water and lead in ceramic tableware. …

“I am as optimistic about the FDA helping with these matters as I am about winning the lottery,” said Lockyer, who then added he doesn’t buy lottery tickets. FDA officials “are excessively bureaucratic and too frequently influenced by the industry they are supposed to regulate,” he said.

FDA officials did not respond to a request for an interview. Others, however, accuse Prop. 65, approved by ballot measure, of promoting frivolous lawsuits against products with limited risk.

“I think history has proven it correct that its potential for mischief far exceeds its potential for good,” said Michele Corash, a longtime critic of the law who has represented defendants in such cases. “The reality is the cost, the burden of the pointless and meaningless warnings have far outweighed benefits it may have provided.”

Endangered California lawsuits include one seeking to ban the sale of lead-contaminated candies and another asking for labels warning consumers that mercury in fish is dangerous to pregnant women. It makes sense to assume that anyone – particularly in the food business – who considers these matters “meaningless” or “pointless” cares more for profit and convenience than for kids, expectant mothers and public health.

And as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) argued, “This bill I believe is an attempt by special interests to stop the states from protecting their own citizens when it comes to dangers in foods. … The fact of the matter is when it comes to food-safety issues, the [federal] government has poor laws.”

As we can see from the French fry battle, federal officials and those in different states often come to different conclusions over what foods are safe and whether consumers need to be warned. While making the same information available on food labels nationwide is a noble desire, warnings about fish, for example, may be more immediately relevant in coastal states than in landlocked localities. And it is well-established that the federal government often is slower to act – and sometimes less inclined to kowtow to business interests – than the states facing particular and unique dangers. Often, local officials are closer to constituents than those working in the rarified, insulated air of Washington, DC, and therefore can be more motivated to pay attention to people’s concerns.

As the Natural Resources Defense Council warns, “Every year millions of Americans suffer from food-borne illnesses and thousands of them die. H.R. 4167, however, would wipe out nearly 200 state food safety protections in all 50 states that are not identical to federal protections, and which sometimes are more stringent. States often lead the way in developing and enforcing America’s health and food safety protections; we should be encouraging greater protections for our children and families, not putting more people’s lives and health at risk.”

With increasing controversy over food labeling and the use of genetically engineered and modified foods, it seems sensible to err on the side of caution, to have more eyes scrutinizing what we can buy and eat rather than fewer. As the liberal People’s Email Network notes, “California required labels on alcoholic beverages that list the potential dangers of alcohol to pregnant women before the federal government did so, and even goes beyond current federal law by requiring California restaurants and bars to post such warnings as well. Some states require warnings that alert people to irradiated food, chemical additives that can cause cancer, and fish that have excessively high levels of mercury, which can cause birth defects. Other states pass laws aimed at protecting the public from contaminated shellfish or eggs.

“H.R. 4167 would make it impossible for we the consumers to monitor the infiltration of our food supply by a witches’ brew of genetically butchered organisms, pesticide and mercury residues, irradiation, and synthetic hormones. With an administration based on government secrecy run amok, they literally want to turn the pollution of our food by unnatural additives into classified information. Why do the corporate biotech giants pushing this bill not want us to know what they are putting in our food? What are they afraid we might do – not eat it?”

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on HR 4167 on Thursday, March 2. It is expected to win House passage; its future in the Senate is much less certain. If the legislation concerns you – and it should – now would be the time to take action. NRDC urges you to contact lawmakers in both houses and let them know that you oppose ripping food-safety oversight powers away from state and local governments.

The matter provides serious food for thought. I’ve already contacted my lawmakers and I encourage you to do the same – via email, given the time constraints involved, and by phone via the Congressional Switchboard, 202-224-3121. And do it now: After all, the future safety of the food you and your family eat are at stake.

I swear, recipes next time.

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