Federal Bill Could Create National Food Standards

Published April 1, 2006

A piece of legislation designed to create a uniform set of safety regulations for all packaged food passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 8 and was pending a hearing in the U.S. Senate at press time.

The bill–HR 4167, known as the National Uniformity for Food Act–passed on a bipartisan 283-139 vote, four-and-a-half months after being introduced by congressional sponsors Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY). A coalition of 95 grocery associations, national food councils, and food manufacturers hailed it as a victory–both for themselves and for consumers.

“We believe, given the national nature of the food supply, that national safety standards should apply to FDA-regulated packaged goods,” said Stephanie Childs, a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers of America, which helped lead the coalition. “Consumers in all states deserve the best information about food safety and the standards for it.”

Completing the Process

Most foods produced in the United States are already subject to federal regulation. For example, the Federal Meat Inspection Act (passed in 1906), Poultry Products Inspection Act (1957), and Egg Products Inspection Act (1970) all did away with various state standards for their respective food groups. Over the past two decades, Congress has followed with national standards for food labeling, through the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, and pesticide tolerance standards, through the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996.

But unless the Senate approves the current bill, packaged food manufacturers will continue to contend with a hodgepodge of state standards that are at best problematic–and at worst, misleading to consumers, Childs said.

According to Alex Avery, director of research at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, the legislation is long overdue. “The fact is, many activist groups with ulterior motives have been using the comparative ignorance of state-level agencies as a means to accomplish what they couldn’t at the national level,” he said.

This July, for example, New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Board may ban the use of aspartame in foods, despite the fact that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it does not cause cancer. California wants to force manufacturers to list the acrylamide content of all foods on package labels. Acrylamide–a substance that has been found to be carcinogenic to lab animals at ultrahigh doses in its artificial form–is a naturally occurring byproduct of the cooking process, researchers discovered in 2002. Though the FDA and World Health Organization (WHO) are still analyzing the issue, at press time the groups believed the levels of acrylamide in the nation’s supply of cooked food to be safe.

“Research so far indicates it’s present in about 40 percent of the foods Americans eat. So if California requires acrylamide labeling, it would go [on everything] from grilled asparagus to toast,” Childs said. “That’s why the FDA and WHO have said it’s inappropriate to warn people about it, because we have nothing to say it’s dangerous in the food supply. We have to make sure we’re supplying consumers with accurate information about food safety so they make the right decisions. Warning labels are just one source of information–not the sole source. So they need to be used judiciously.”

Overturning State Statutes

“It’s a bad law and should never be adopted, and in fact, is against the 9th and 10th articles of the Bill of Rights,” said Betty Martini, a consumer activist in Atlanta who has been fighting the aspartame industry for 15 years. “If we had an FDA interested in the safety of the public, aspartame would immediately be recalled.

“I believe this is why they’re passing the bill, to stop us from doing this in New Mexico,” Martini said.

Dave Ray, vice president for public affairs for the American Meat Institute, welcomes the national standard. “We support the bill because it’s better to have one, uniform standard for food products, packaging, and labeling than 50,” Ray said. “In addition, some of the food additives that are addressed in this bill are used by meat packers and producers, so those products directly affect our members.”

Childs points out that the law wouldn’t completely centralize power in Washington. It provides for states’ input by establishing a procedure for the FDA to evaluate existing state regulations that differ from its own and consider applying them nationally. It also does not create a policy for food safety enforcement, nor will it pre-empt existing safety requirements a state may have without first undertaking a thorough evaluation.

“When it comes to state’s rights in this instance, the act applies only to food safety tolerances and warning labels required by the FDA,” Childs explained. “States will still have an integral role in inspection and sanitation requirements, restaurant inspections, recall, and embargo. States will still retain that very important role in the safety of the food supply.”

Meeting Global Needs

Also important to supporters is the law’s potential to help U.S. food producers compete in international markets. “Food now is produced for an international market, not just a local market. So you see a move toward standardizing food products globally, not just nationally,” Childs said.

“We want to make sure Americans have the best foods available and the safest food supply,” said Childs. “This legislation would help build on that history, and hopefully improve it.”

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News’ sister publication, School Reform News.

For more information …

“New Mexico activists hope to achieve an unprecedented ban on aspartame,” by Alexis Black, November 20, 2005, http://www.newstarget.com/013073.html.

“Pesticides, Metals, Chemical Contaminants & Natural Toxins,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/pestadd.html.

“Carcinogens in the Diet,” by Janet Ralof, Science News, February 19, 2005, http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20050219/food.asp.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program, 11th Report on Carcinogens, 2005, http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/toc11.html.