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(DV) Osborn: The Fight Over Food







The Fight Over Food
by John Osborn
March 23, 2006

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Corporate 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 government. 
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 disputed. 
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 authority. 
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 be known. 
John Osborn is the community editor of the Lumberjack Newspaper out of Humboldt State University. He is passionate about civil rights, justice, and accountability.