WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday to strip many warnings from food labels, potentially affecting alerts about arsenic in bottled water, lead in candy and allergy-causing sulfites, among others.
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Pushed by food companies seeking uniform labels across state lines, the bill would prevent states from adding food warnings that go beyond federal law. States could petition the Food and Drug Administration to add extra warnings, under the bill.
Lawmakers approved the bill on a 283-139 vote. Supporters expect a Senate version of the bill to be introduced soon.
“This bill is going to overturn 200 state laws that protect our food supply,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. “Why are we doing that? What’s wrong with our system of federalism?”
The bill’s supporters argue that consumers deserve the same warnings on supermarket shelves across the country. The bill would allow a state to seek a nationwide warning from FDA.
“We ought to do it in all 50 states,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. “Chicken grown in Louisiana is going to end up on a plate in Michigan.”
Rogers mentioned a warning his own state about allergy-causing sulfites: “If they’re bad for Michigan citizens, I think they’re bad in all of the other 49 states,” he said.
Nationwide, as many as 200 state laws or regulations could be affected, according to the Congressional Budget Office. They include warnings about lead and alcohol in candy, arsenic in bottled water and many others.
The government would spend at least $100 million to answer petitions for tougher state rules, according to CBO.
Opponents of the bill scored one victory Wednesday: State warnings about mercury in fish would remain. Lawmakers amended the bill to let states keep those warnings. That amendment, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., passed on a 253-168 vote.
About a dozen states have safety and labeling rules for fish. In California, white signs with “WARNING” in red letters tells grocery shoppers about high mercury levels in certain fish. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., displayed the placard during debate Wednesday on the House floor.
Eshoo noted the bill’s supporters have personal ties to food industry lobbyists.
“This is not about consumers. This is about special interests,” she said.
California is a primary target of the legislation. There, the voter-passed Proposition 65 requires companies to warn the public of potentially dangerous toxins in food. California has filed lawsuits seeking an array of warnings, including the mercury content of canned tuna and the presence of lead in Mexican candy.
Of particular concern to the industry is acrylamide, a chemical linked to cancer that forms in starchy food cooked at high temperatures, such as french fries and potato chips.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has sued to force Burger King Holdings Inc., PepsiCo Inc.’s Frito Lay brand, McDonald’s Corp., Wendy’s International Inc. and other companies to warn consumers that acrylamide is present.
There is widespread opposition among state officials. Attorneys general in 39 states are opposed, as are the National Conference of State Legislature and the associations of state food and drug officials and state agriculture departments.
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