Congress debates uniform federal warning labels

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Food safety

The House of Representatives yesterday lunched a debate on a bill
that proposes to create a uniform system for all food safety
standards and warning labels on food products regulated by the US
Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

A vote on the National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005 is expected at some point next week.

Food products that fall under the regulation of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) already have national uniform labeling standards. However, with FDA-regulated products, food regulation is currently composed of a variety of different, and sometimes inconsistent requirements.

The National Uniformity for Food Act, which amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in areas of food safety and warning labeling, would prevent states from requiring labels or warnings that differ from those set out by the FDA.

This would prove to be a significant benefit to food companies, which would no longer have to label their products differently in accordance with the regulations set out by individual states.

But the act has sparked a fierce debate between supporters and opponents.

Those in favor, including major ingredients and food firms such as Cargill, ConAgra Foods and General Mills, claim that the bill takes a "measured, science based approach, to achieve national uniformity"​ through an "orderly review and harmonization of existing state food adulteration laws and warnings."

"It makes no sense to have a 'patchwork quilt' of different states adopting different regulatory requirements on identical food products,"​ they wrote in a letter to Congress last week.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) also supports the act as "common-sense legislation"​ that will prevent consumer confusion.

However, opponents, including advocacy groups and certain state agriculture departments, claim the act is an "assault on food safety,"​ and is governed by a political power struggle rather than an interest in consumer well being.

"The food industry may find various state laws and regulations inconvenient, but that's not a good reason to torch these in one fell swoop,"​ said Benjamin Cohen, senior staff attorney for the consumer pressure group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

A primary concern of opponents is that the bill would dissolve state food safety protections where these are not identical to federal standards. These, they say, are often more stringent than federal laws.

However, the bill does in fact allow states to petition the FDA to set their safety measures as the national standard, point out the supporters.

"The same products are available to all consumers and so all consumers have the right to the same safety information; if it's not safe for some then it's not safe for others,"​ said GMA spokesperson Stephanie Childs.

National uniformity in food laws already exists in certain areas.

All meat and poultry products regulated by the USDA have uniform safety standards, as set out under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.

And in 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLAE) was enacted, establishing uniform nutrition labeling requirements on manufactured foods. In addition, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996 included a uniformity provision for pesticide tolerance standards in food products.

Related topics Food labelling

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