The Chicago Tribune reports that by the time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration got around to worrying about how much lead we might be ingesting along with our calcium supplements, most of the manufacturers of those tablets had grudgingly gotten the lead out.
Why? Because California already had its own standard for allowable levels of lead, and the companies wanted to sell calcium in California. Told to either reduce the lead or label the product as potentially dangerous, the companies chose to make their product safer, not just for Californians but for everyone. The FDA had nothing to do with it.
Mercury in tuna, arsenic in bottled water, pesticides on vegetables. Across the country, states have adopted their own standards for all sorts of substances believed to be harmful to consumers. This is an expensive nuisance for the food industry, which would rather not tailor its products or its labels to 50 individual markets. In particular it would rather not deal with California’s Proposition 65, the 1986 law that requires warnings for some 750 chemicals linked to cancer or birth defects.
Hence the National Uniformity for Food Act, which has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is on its way to the Senate. The bill would sweep away all state food safety laws that are stricter than federal standards.
At least 150 state laws would be affected by the bill. Many of them cover food safety issues the FDA doesn’t address at all. Those standards, too, would be scrapped, leaving not just lesser protections but no protections at all.
Clearly, states believe they are doing a better job than the FDA when it comes to food safety. Thirty-nine state attorneys general signed a letter opposing the House bill. The National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of State Agricultural Departments also opposed it.
Yet the House dismissed those concerns and passed the bill without so much as a public hearing. In California and elsewhere, voters have shown they are willing to pay higher prices if it means they have more information about what’s in their food. Federal lawmakers have no business overruling them.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association says the measure would ensure “a single set of food safety and warning standards that will help consumers make educated decisions for themselves and their families,” a truly patronizing argument. The industry doesn’t want consumers to make educated decisions; it wants the FDA to make those decisions for them, because the FDA is a step or three behind the states.
If food manufacturers can get out from under the states’ pesky labeling regulations, they won’t have to warn consumers about all those scary chemicals that the FDA hasn’t gotten around to worrying about. And they won’t even have to think about removing them. That’s a big win for the food industry, not for consumers.
Less information might make for easier decisions. That doesn’t mean they’ll be better.