industry interests gain another victory and once more the welfare of
American citizens will be jeopardized in the face of corporate agendas.
For years, lobbyists for the grocery and
food industries have been mounting an assault on the ability of states
to dictate policies it sees fit to ensure the public health. The House
has finally capitulated to the relentless industry campaign -- leaving
the National Uniformity of Food Act in its wake.
The bill, if passed by the Senate, will create a national standard for
food safety, food labeling, and warning notifications. A national
standard essentially means that only the federal government has the
ultimate authority to dictate what food substances are hazardous to
people or the environment. State laws dealing with these issues will be
preempted, and their rights once more trampled on by the federal
There is no justification for this bill, no reason why there needs to be
a change in who has the authority to ensure that our food is of the
highest quality possible -- free from chemicals and substances that can
harm both humans and the environment. The only justification, the one
the industry offers, is that itís easier to work in an environment of
uniformity, where all the rules are standardized, centralized, and
easily changed by lobbyists.
The Constitution states that any power not delegated to the Federal
government directly is left to the states. Food safety has always been
an issue that the states watched carefully, since what little Federal
regulations exist is weak, and agencies like the Food and Drug
Administration are already spread thin on a small budget. In fact, all
one has to do is look at the laws states pass, such as Californiaís
Proposition 65, to understand that when states take charge, stringent
regulations are enacted.
Proposition 65, a bill passed in 1986 by popular vote, requires
manufacturers to issue warnings on their product labels about any
substances that are known to the state to be a carcinogenic or
reproductive toxin. Proposition 65 has had many successes in preventing
adulterated foods from being sold to the consumer unknowingly.
Proposition 65 has gotten companies to reduce the amount of arsenic in
bottled water, has assisted in getting leaded candy from Mexico off the
shelves and has empowered Californiaís Attorney General to get grocery
stores to post information about mercury levels in fish they sold.
Proposition 65 doesnít ban products with these substances, it merely
forces the manufacturer to disclose that information to the consumer.
This is precisely why the ability of states to ensure food safety is
such a threat to industry. For one, itís difficult to influence multiple
state legislatures as well as Congress, meaning that industry cannot
always get what it wants. Second, since state and local governments
directly deal with the side effects of hazardous substances, existing
laws demonstrate just how resolved the desire to maintain public health
is. Finally, labeling laws destroy profit by giving the consumer a
choice -- do I buy milk from a cow injected with rBST or the milk free
of chemicals ... though choice.
Even if the major motivation of proponents of the bill was that overall
food safety would increase is missing the point. How can a federal
agency in Washington understand the needs and the worries of citizens in
any given state, any given community? How is an already taxed agency
like the FDA going take the burden of every stateís food safety
regulation? How can states react immediately to a crisis or public
health hazard when they have to fight through the bureaucracy to get an
exemption from these uniform regulations?
If this bill passes, it will unfortunately be the people that suffer, as
our state and local governments are paralyzed to harmonizing federal
standards. No matter what benefits may arise from this bill passing, the
short-term affect of this bill will be to roll back stringent state laws
that exist to protect people from food hazards -- that cannot be
Proponents of the bill claim that states will have the mechanism --
though the law -- to appeal to the FDA for exemptions on substances, to
set new national standards and to react to an immediate crisis.
Essentially, this bill is adding mounds of bureaucratic tape to the
process of protecting public health, and no doubt industry could have
the ability to use litigation to establish precedents or to overturn
decisions of the FDA. And since this law is vague, litigation will be a
predominant way to establish precedent on interpretations of the bill --
which is highly undemocratic considering judges will be the ultimate
Since this bill still needs to be passed by the Senate, there is still
time to lobby your Senators and tell them your opinion on this bill, no
matter what it is. What is important though is that you let your voice
John Osborn is the community editor
of the Lumberjack Newspaper out of Humboldt State University. He is
passionate about civil rights, justice, and accountability.