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Food-safety labeling bill advances
WASHINGTON — The House approved legislation Wednesday that would standardize food-safety labeling requirements across the country, a move critics said would replace some strong state standards with weaker federal ones.
The vote was endorsed 283-139 and goes to the Senate. Food producers and grocers backed the bill.
The measure would concentrate most food-safety labeling power with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and prohibit states from requiring warnings that differ from those mandated by the federal government.
States would have to petition the FDA to maintain laws and regulations on the books.
Nationwide, as many as 200 state laws or regulations could be affected, according to the Congressional Budget Office. They include warnings about lead and alcohol in candy, arsenic in bottled water, mercury in fish, lead in ceramic tableware, fat and oil content in food and pesticides in fruits and vegetables, among others.
"This bill is going to overturn 200 state laws that protect our food supply," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. "Why are we doing that? What's wrong with our system of federalism?"
Susanna Montezemolo, a policy analyst at Consumers Union, the nonprofit that publishes Consumer Reports magazine, said the legislation would undermine the states' "ability to enact laws to protect new threats to public health. States would lose the ability to act in areas that the federal government has not already acted."
Many states have tougher standards than those promulgated by the FDA, and some have standards covering areas the federal government doesn't.
For example, at least 16 states have shellfish-safety standards, and Arkansas and Illinois have egg-safety laws, according to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But supporters said providing nationwide standards for food-safety warnings would help consumers who may be confused by different regulations among the states.
Manly Molpus, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said, "By providing consistent, science-based food safety standards and warning requirements, all consumers will be able to have confidence in the safety of the food supply."
Consumer groups said the measure would weaken state efforts such as California's Proposition 65, approved by voters in 1986. That measure requires food manufacturers to disclose ingredients that may cause cancer or birth defects.
Such state-required warnings could disappear if the bill becomes law, critics said.
The legislation also was opposed by 39 state attorneys general. In a letter to the House this week, they said the measure would "strip state governments of the ability to protect their residents through state laws and regulations."
Also opposing the bill were the National Conference of State Legislatures and associations of state food and drug officials and state agriculture departments.
Opponents of the bill scored one victory Wednesday.
Lawmakers approved an amendment that would allow states to keep warnings about mercury in fish.
About a dozen states have safety and labeling rules for fish.
Compiled from The Associated Press, Bloomberg News and Gannett News Service
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company