Friday, June 16, 2006

Rancid to the Core

by The Register-Guard of Eugene, Oregon
June 14, 2006

Since 1998, the food industry has been pushing to repeal state and local food safety and labeling laws in Oregon and elsewhere through legislation called the National Uniformity for Food Act.

Don't be deceived by this bill's appetizing title, which suggests that it would create rigorous new national standards. It would do just the opposite, eliminating more than 200 important food safety laws across the country and setting an ominous precedent undermining states' rights.

If this proposal becomes law, nearly all of the decisions about the quality and safety of our food will be made in Washington, D.C. That's bad news for those who value the importance of local control - and who distrust the federal government's ability to make final decisions about the food we eat, whether its grits in Alabama or shellfish in Oregon.

Indeed, the only thing that's uniform about this bill is that it would wipe out consumer protections in nearly every state. Yet, amazingly, it breezed through U.S. House last March by a 283-139 vote without a single public hearing.

Well, perhaps that's not so amazing. The coalition of corporations and trade groups backing the bill contributed more than $3 million to federal lawmakers in the 2005-06 election cycle and a total of $31 million since 1998. Apparently that was enough to make lawmakers forget the important role that individual states have had in improving the nation's food safety.

California's Proposition 65 is a prime example. Approved by the state's voters in 1986, the law requires the labeling of substances that may cause cancer or birth defects. Since then, it has inspired many other states, including Oregon, to approve rules that are also more stringent than federal standards.

The passage of Proposition 65 prompted Big Food to push for legislation that would place all review of food standards at the federal level, where it could be more easily controlled by the industry. Under the National Uniformity for Food Act, states would have to petition the notoriously unresponsive Food and Drug Administration to maintain food safety laws, and the federal agency would have nearly unlimited authority to reject those petitions.

Public opposition to the House bill was widespread and included 39 state attorneys general, the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well associations of state food and drug officials and state agriculture departments. Yet the bill sailed through the House with little resistance, and now Big Food is ready to move in the Senate.

Last month, Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., introduced a Senate version that's nearly identical to the House version, with at least one significant difference. While House lawmakers approved an amendment permitting states to issue their own mercury warnings for seafood, the Senate bill allows for no such exceptions.

So far, the bill has encountered a cool reception in the Senate, where it has drawn opposition from most Democrats, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. Hopefully, Gordon Smith, Wyden's Republican counterpart from Oregon, and other GOP moderates will provide the swing votes needed to defeat this bill. If they're looking for motivation, they should start by considering the damage this bill would do to states' rights, once a sacred precept for Republicans in Congress.

Big Food already has gobbled up the House. Now it's up to the Senate to protect Americans who want their states to retain some say over the food that's on their grocery shelves and dinner plates.

Copyright © 2006 The Register-Guard

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