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Proposed labeling law threatens state rules

Oregon attorney general joins health groups to urge Senate 'no' vote
by: Anne Marie DiStefano, Rory Moloney, 4; Erin Walker, 7; and Olivia Moloney, 7, chomp berries at the farmers market in the Ecotrust building parking lot

The food you eat may soon have fewer warning labels.

If Senate Bill 3128, the National Uniformity for Food Act, passes the U.S. Senate, it will torpedo state laws that require warning labels on food. The future purity and safety of milk is the biggest concern for opponents of the bill.

The House of Representatives approved a version of the bill earlier this year. In the name of creating uniform standards for food safety, the proposed law takes away states' rights to require warning labels and transfers all authority to the federal level. Laws that have been in effect for years, warning consumers about everything from arsenic in bottled water to food that has been salvaged from a fire, would be nullified.

Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers appeared at a farmers market in the Pearl District on July 13 to publicly oppose the bill. As local vendors sold blueberries, corn and tomatoes, Myers explained the potential health hazards posed by the bill and called on both Oregon senators, Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith, to vote against the measure.

Myers was joined by Rick North of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maye Thompson of the Oregon Nurses Association and Lars Per Norgren of Peak Forest Fruit. Both North and Thompson said that eliminating laws at the state level would increase health risks associated with food, especially for children, pregnant women and seniors.

'It would make the federal laws the ceiling rather than the floor,' North explained.

A major issue is unpasteurized milk. There is no national law regulating the sale of unpasteurized milk within a state; the gap is filled by individual laws in all 50 states.

North said that historically, states have been much more nimble in responding to newly discovered health hazards than the federal government. North also claimed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is understaffed and underfunded. With the new measure in effect, states would have to petition the FDA one law at a time for permission to continue enforcing approximately 200 laws now in effect.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill, if passed, could cost the FDA $100 million over the next five years.

Supporters of the bill say it would save money and make labeling rules less confusing. The bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, and is supported by food industry titans such as Kraft, Nestle and ConAgra Foods. The bill sailed through the House without a public hearing, but its route through the Senate should be a bit more rocky.

California's senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, have vowed to block the bill. The National Uniformity for Food Act has incensed many Californians because it would wipe out a landmark labeling law. In 1986, two-thirds of California voters passed Proposition 65, which requires a label on foods containing substances that may cause cancer or birth defects. Rather than affix such labels, many companies stopped using such chemicals in their products.

States often create regulations for local produce that end up protecting consumers nationwide. In Alaska, genetically engineered salmon must be labeled.

State laws govern the freshness of pecans in Alabama, the purity of maple syrup in New Hampshire and the sources of catfish in Mississippi. Sometimes the purity of food from a specific region is a valuable marketing tool.

'Oregon farmers are producing some of the purest food in the world,' said Norgren of Peak Forest Fruit, which is a wild-mushroom business. 'Warning labels on less-pure food give us a competitive edge.'

At the farmers market, Myers explained that he is one of 39 state attorneys general who oppose the National Uniformity for Food Act.

'This measure is a huge, huge invasion of traditional state authority to protect the safety and well-being of the citizens in relation to food safety,' he said.

He presented a letter to Oregon's senators, signed by local doctors, farmers and consumer advocates, urging them not to vote for the measure.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate at 10 a.m. Thursday.

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