House votes to dump state food safety laws
Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Thursday, March 9, 2006
Washington -- The House approved a bill Wednesday night that would wipe out state laws on safety labeling of food, overriding tough rules passed by California voters two decades ago that require food producers to warn consumers about cancer-causing ingredients.
The vote was a victory for the food industry, which has lobbied for years for national standards for food labeling and contributed millions of dollars to lawmakers' campaigns. But consumer groups and state regulators warned that the bill would undo more than 200 state laws, including California's landmark Proposition 65, that protect public health.
"The purpose of this legislation is to keep the public from knowing about the harm they may be exposed to in food," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, a chief critic of the measure.
Several critics argued that the bill was rushed through the House without complete hearings as a favor to a specific industry -- at the same time that members are talking about the evils of lobbying and proposing stricter ethical rules.
Under the bill, any state that wanted to keep its own tougher standards for food labeling would have to ask for approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which has been criticized by food safety groups as slow to issue consumer warnings.
The measure was approved after a debate in which House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco accused the Republican majority of "shredding the food safety net that we have built in this country."
The measure passed 283 to 139, with the support of many Democrats. The Bay Area's 12 Democratic members opposed the bill, while Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, supported it. The legislation faces a tougher battle in the more evenly divided Senate, and there are signs of growing opposition to the measure.
California's two Democratic senators are threatening to block the bill from coming to the Senate floor. A group of 39 state attorneys general, including many Republicans, has warned of the consequences of the measure. State food and drug regulators and agricultural officials also are urging the Senate to reject the bill.
A major target of the legislation is Prop. 65, which was approved by two-thirds of California voters in 1986 and requires labeling of substances that may cause cancer or birth defects. The law has inspired other states to follow suit with their own rules on food labeling that are more stringent than federal standards.
Critics say the laws have added costs for food manufacturers and distributors, who must comply with different rules in different states. The industry's backers claim the different warning labels confuse consumers.
"There is no reason nor is there any excuse to allow regulatory inconsistency to drive up costs and keep some consumers in the dark on matters that may affect their health," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
But California officials said the new legislation would reverse the gains made through Prop. 65. Many companies, fearing the warning labels, have changed their food to meet the state's tougher standards. Bottled water companies have cut arsenic levels, and bakers have taken potassium bromate, a potential carcinogen, out of many breads, doughnuts and other bakery goods.
"We've had a lot of success in getting them to reformulate," said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Opponents of the bill complained that it was rushed to the House floor without a public hearing, where state regulators and food safety advocates could have testified against it.
"That is the job of Congress, to hold hearings, to introduce facts, to listen to debate," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who co-sponsored the bill but opposed it on the floor, saying it needed a thorough public debate. "I am wondering right now what the food industry is afraid of. Why are they trying to ram this piece of legislation through the House?"
Critics of the measure also have been frustrated that California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill despite being urged to do so by Waxman and Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, early last month.
"Your silence on this legislation is inexplicable," Waxman wrote in a letter to the governor. "It not only rolls back essential existing laws, but it takes away your ability, and the ability of the California Legislature, to respond to future public health issues."
A spokeswoman for the governor said Schwarzenegger may still jump into the debate.
"The office is reviewing it," said spokeswoman Margita Thompson. "Once the determination is made if the governor should weigh in and how, we will."
The vote Wednesday was a sign of the tremendous power of the food industry in Congress. Corporations and trade groups that joined the National Uniformity for Food Coalition, which backed the bill, have contributed more than $3 million to members in the 2005-06 election cycle and $31 million since 1998, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The industry also has many top lobbyists pushing the bill, including White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card's brother, Brad Card, who represents the Food Products Association.
A leading fundraiser for the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has also been lobbying on the bill. Matt Keelen, a Republican consultant whose fundraising firm raised more than $315,000 in political action committee donations for Rogers in 2001, is now a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which has led the charge for the measure.
"The food industry wants to take the states out of the picture because they can't control them," said Andy Igrejas of the National Environmental Trust, which opposes the bill. "This is how they do it. They make campaign contributions, and they hire people close to members of Congress."
But Rogers denied there was a backroom deal with the food industry. He said supporters of the bill simply believe federal standards work better than state standards on food safety.
"A chicken grown in Louisiana is going to end up on a plate in Michigan. Peas grown in Florida are going to end up in Louisiana," Rogers said. "This is an interstate matter."
The House passed an amendment late Wednesday allowing states, including California, to continue to issue warnings about the heath effects of mercury in fish and shellfish.
But the House defeated an amendment by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, that would have let states keep laws that warn consumers about exposure to substances that could cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive health problems or allergic reactions associated with sulfites.
The House also rejected a proposal to allow states to label meat that has been treated with carbon monoxide. The gas is used to keep meat looking a healthy red or pink for longer, but consumer groups say it allows stores to sell potentially dangerous meat that has already spoiled.