Two panels and a total of seven speakers addressed the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).
The hearing marked the next step in an ongoing debate between supporters and opponents of the controversial new bill, which was approved in the House of Representatives in March and is now due to be considered by the Senate.
The National Uniformity For Food Act, also referred to as S. 3128, proposes to establish a federal standard for all food safety requirements and warning labels regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Individual states would no longer be permitted to require labels or warnings that differ from those set out by the FDA.
Yesterday's hearing provided an opportunity for certain concerns surrounding the bill to be voiced, as well as an occasion to clarify of the bill's scope and intent.
Speakers included Georgia's Senator Saxby Chambliss, who expressed his support for the bill, and California's Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who reiterated their opposition.
According to Senator Chambliss, the National Uniformity for Food Act is a "long-needed, common sense approach to the regulation of packaged foods."
In his address, he stated that the legislation "will not only remove unnecessary and costly impediments to interstate commerce but even more importantly it will provide consumers with clear and useful information."
"The bill will (…) eliminate consumer confusion and bolster confidence in the safety of our food supply by placing our nation's food safety in the hands of the US Food and Drug Administration, the world's leading food safety agency," he added.
However, opponents to the legislation, including Senators Boxer and Feinstein, claim the new regulations would preempt over 200 state food safety protections where these are not identical to federal standards. These, they say, are often more stringent than federal laws.
"Don't let the nice title -'National Uniformity for Foods Act'- fool you. This legislation poses a threat to the health of Americans in every state in the Union," said Senator Boxer.
She claimed the bill is being promoted by "special interests" , who "see dollar signs" rather than the health risks posed to consumers by certain components found in foods, such as lead in candy, arsenic in bottled water and mercury in fish.
Senator Feinstein pointed out that there is strong bipartisan opposition to the proposed measures, with Governors of eight states, including California's Governor Schwarzenegger, Attorneys General of 39 states, the Association of Food and Drug Officials, State Departments of Agriculture, Consumers Union and numerous nationalconsumer and environmental groups opposing the preemption of state and local foodsafety requirements.
The second panel speaking at yesterday's hearing included William Stadtlander, the owner of Homestat Farm, which manufactures the 'healthy' cereal product Wheatena, and who was sued under California law because his product contains acrylamide. Stadtlander described his ordeal and expressed his support for a bill that would eliminate laws that could jeopardize small businesses without benefiting consumers.
Peter Hutt, senior counsel at Covington and Burling law firm also addressed the Committee, expressing his support for the bill and outlining its main features.
Dr Elsa Murano, dean of the College of Agrculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University, also expressed her support for the bill. Murano, who previously served as Undersecretary for Food Safety at the US Department of Agriculture, provided a number of examples demonstrating how Congress has repeatedly established uniform requirements for nutrition labeling, allergen labeling and standards and labeling of meat and poultry products.
The final speaker was William Hubbard, a recently retired FDA official who has been involved in national uniformity for food safety repeatedly over the years. Hubbard expressed his opposition to the bill, stating that the FDA is under-resourced to conduct such a sweeping operation. He claimed that the bill was confusing in itself and would create a "vacuum in safety oversight".