Congress Considers Uniform Food Warning Laws

Published April 1, 2006

Congress is considering legislation that would require states to seek federal permission before requiring food warning labels not required by the federal government.

The legislation, known as the National Uniformity for Food Act, would curtail laws such as California’s Proposition 65 (passed in 1986), which requires supermarkets and other food sellers to post numerous warnings about often speculative and scientifically unsupported claims of health risks.

Federal Standards Already Exist

Supporters of the measure point out the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is already charged with ensuring food safety and issuing food safety warnings. Under the current system, however, alarmists who fail to convince experts at the FDA of their claims can launch propaganda campaigns in the 50 states to circumvent federal findings.

In California, supermarkets are required to post signs in their seafood departments warning consumers, especially pregnant mothers, of alleged health risks of eating fish–even though numerous scientific studies report eating fish is one of the healthiest things a mother can do for her unborn child.

“The Proposition 65 warnings are absolutely, scientifically absurd,” said Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health. “Proposition 65 requires that [a firm selling] any product that contains any animal carcinogen [a substance found to cause cancer in animals] must label it or stop selling it even when there is no evidence of human cancer causation.”

Added Whelan, “Illogically, Proposition 65 applies only to chemicals released by human [activities] but exempts natural carcinogens, which in many cases pose a much greater threat to human health.”

Politics Trumps Science

The fact that federal experts may consider warnings such as California’s seafood warning unnecessary or even counterproductive is irrelevant when, as in California’s case, alarmists can win a scare campaign fought in the political rather than scientific arena.

“These laws are misguided at the start and usually based on poor information,” said Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “It is a classic case of politics trumping science.”

Causes Price Increases

In addition to the often-counterproductive health effects of state-specific health warnings, there are economic costs as well.

“If you have a proliferation of different standards in all 50 states, it certainly adds to costs,” Calvin Dooley, a former Democratic Congressman from Visalia, California who now serves as president of the Food Products Association, told the Los Angeles Times for a February 9 story.

Dooley and other experts have pointed out that rising producer costs mean rising consumer costs.

“A patchwork of state-specific labeling requirements will be very, very expensive for producers and consumers alike,” observed Whelan.

House Passage Virtually Certain

More than half of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives have already signed up to sponsor the National Uniformity for Food Act, making passage in the House virtually certain. The House Energy and Commerce Committee on December 15 approved the legislation in a bipartisan 30-18 vote. The full House is expected to approve the bill this spring. The only remaining question is whether the Senate will give its approval.

Opponents of the legislation have attempted to characterize the bill as a partisan gift to food providers.

“The result will mean less disclosure about toxic chemicals in our food, less incentive for manufacturers to remove them, and less protection for public health,” California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) told the Orange County Register for a February 11 story. “This federal proposal would drag our public-health protection laws down to the lowest common denominator.”

However, support has been strong and notably bipartisan, with 58 House Democrats joining 168 Republicans who felt strongly enough to sign on as sponsors of the bill. California Rep. Jim Costa (D) summarized why many Democrats support the legislation.

“We too often spend way too much time chasing parts-per-billion and parts-per-trillion without a careful examination as to where do you get the best bang for your buck in protecting health and safety for consumers,” Costa told the Ukiah Daily Journal for a January 24 story.

Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, agreed. “There’s no reason, if a state feels there is a cause for concern, … that all residents of all 50 states shouldn’t have that information,” Childs said. “What national uniformity would do is give California the opportunity to bring its science to the national level.”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have different labels on different products going to different states,” agreed Susan Stout of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “If the science is there to merit a warning, then it ought to be done (nationally),” she told the Orange County Register for a February 11 story.

James Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon. The views and reports expressed by James Hoare are his alone and do not represent those of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon and/or the partners of the firm.

For more information …

The full text of the National Uniformity for Food Act is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #18707.