San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Edward Epstein reports that California’s two senators vowed Wednesday to go all out to block House-passed legislation that critics say would gut the state’s voter-approved Proposition 65, which requires food manufacturers to list any cancer- or birth-defect-causing substances in their products.
The legislation, strongly backed by food manufacturers, hasn’t even come before a Senate committee yet, but Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein said they are mobilizing opposition now to try to ensure its defeat. On Tuesday, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released a letter disclosing his opposition to the bill, which advocates say is necessary to set a single national standard for food safety.
The senators and Schwarzenegger also said the proposal is another assault on California’s right to set consumer protections greater than those provided in other states or by the federal government. Already, the state’s financial privacy laws have been rolled back through congressional action undertaken at the behest of industry.
“This is really a bill that will override the wishes of the people of California,” said Boxer at a joint news conference in San Francisco with Feinstein during Congress’ two-week spring recess. “It’s pretty simple and it’s pretty sad. Food safety regulations can cut into profits,” so the industry has pushed ever since Prop. 65 passed 20 years ago to overturn its rules.
The food industry has also contributed millions of dollars to the campaigns of members of Congress.
The bill, called the National Uniformity for Food Act, sailed through the Republican-controlled House 283-139 last month, despite opposition from 39 states’ attorneys general from both major parties and a coalition of consumer groups.
Feinstein said the picture is much less favorable for the bill in the Senate. “We will defeat this if this comes to the floor,” she said. “I suspect they won’t even bring this to the floor.”
“We say that with our fingers crossed,” Boxer added.
The senators point to a host of food safety improvements resulting from Prop. 65’s requirement that manufacturers disclose ingredients. These include bottlers’ decision to remove arsenic from bottled water, lead solder from food cans and PCBs from salmon. They also said California’s new law cracking down on candy and other fattening snacks in schools arose directly from Prop. 65.
In his letter, Schwarzenegger said Congress and President Bush shouldn’t interfere with Prop 65.
“I am a strong believer in the rights of individual states to enact laws that protect its citizens and the environment, and the federal government should not interfere in a state’s ability to do so,” he wrote.
The industry says its goal is to duplicate the national uniformity of labeling on over-the-counter drugs, pesticides, meat and poultry and medical devices.
“Consumers in all 50 states deserve consistent, science-based standards governing warning requirements associated with labeling, advertising and other forms of communication by food companies,” said a statement from former California Rep. Cal Dooley, a Central Valley Democrat who is now president of the Food Products Association.
The industry also said the patchwork of state regulations drives up costs.
“Companies are spending enormous time and resources negotiating with state regulatory agencies and trial lawyers on hundreds of food ingredient issues,” said Susan Stout, vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The foodmakers also say that any state that wants to keep its tougher standards for food labeling could seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
But Boxer said the process set forth in the House bill is impossibly labyrinthine.
“If California wants out, it has to go through a petition process so complicated it would take me all day to explain,” she said.