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Warning to states: no warning labels

At the top of the food industry's 1999 congressional agenda will be a bill outlawing most state food labeling laws. Legislation that pre-empts state authority is always controversial.

But the National Uniformity For Food Act (H.R. 4382/S. 2356) has strong, bi-partisan support, which is both unusual and heartening. The bill says that no state can establish a food labeling law that contradicts one already established by the Food and Drug Administration. But states would continue to have authority over labeling for food expiration dates, sanitation practices and shellfish warnings and could petition the FDA for exemptions from FDA law. Sponsored by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Rep. Richard Burr (R-NC), the bill is essentially directed at warding off label dictates stemming from state initiatives such as California's Proposition 65. That California law, passed in 1987, requires product labels to carry warnings citing the presence of any of more than 400 potentially hazardous chemicals. Chip Kunde, vice president of state affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), acknowledges that Prop 65 has not resulted in any food products having to carry a warning label. He explains, though, that some cosmetics products had to be reformulated in order to avoid having to carry a warning. As many as 11 other state legislatures have considered similar kinds of laws, although none have passed any Prop 65-like proposals. This type of proposal has been introduced in previous Congresses. But it never got on the congressional radar screen. Susan Stout, senior director for federal affairs at GMA, thinks the bill makes sense in the wake of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), passed by Congress in 1990. It established a standard ingredient panel for food labels. The reason the Roberts/Burr bill has bi-partisan support is that it is considered pro-agriculture. So, in the Senate, for example, the Agriculture Committee stalwarts from both sides of the aisle are co-sponsoring the bill. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the top Democrat on the committee, says, "Perhaps the most apparent reason for a national system of rules relating to regulation of foods involves the economic costs associated with complying with varying state requirements. The burden of satisfying a number of different, and perhaps conflicting, requirements throughout the country can be significant." But support for the bill extends beyond the representatives of farm districts. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), who represents Brooklyn in New York City, is a co-sponsor of the bill. Trees grow in Brooklyn. But not much else. Or so we're told.

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