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Battle over food labels gets personal

Critics of legislation to curtail warning labels on food have adopted a personal strategy: showcasing ties that some lawmakers have to food industry lobbyists.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Critics of legislation to curtail warning labels on food have adopted a personal strategy: showcasing ties that some lawmakers have to food industry lobbyists.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and several other lawmakers support a bill that would keep states from adding warnings that go beyond federal rules.

The lawmakers have family, friends and former staff among the lobbyists for the bill.

“This helps explain why the food industry has blocked any efforts to have hearings,” said Ben Cohen, attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group.

“They think they’ve got it greased by using well-connected lobbyists to slip this thing through the full House without following the normal procedures,” Cohen said.

State warnings alert consumers to mercury in fish, arsenic in bottled water, pesticides in vegetables and many other potential problems. The food industry wants consistent warnings across state lines. The bill would let states petition the federal government if they want to add extra warnings.

Blunt’s wife works for food company
According to reports filed with Congress, the bill’s lobbyists include Blunt’s wife, Abigail, who works for Altria, parent of Kraft Foods. They also include former Boehner staffers Mason Wiggins, lobbyist for the Food Products Association, an industry group, and Brenda Reese, lobbyist for the American Beverage Association.

Also listed is Brad Card, brother of White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and former top aide to Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y. Brad Card has lobbied on food labeling issues for the Food Products Association. The association is headed by a former congressman, Democrat Cal Dooley of California.

“It’s a perfect storm of insider access, big money and bad policy,” said Andy Igrejas of the Washington-based National Environmental Trust, which did the lobbying research. “They’re sweeping away 200 state laws without a hearing, all because very wealthy interests want them to.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee sent the bill to the floor without a hearing. The bill has broad support and is expected to win House approval soon. Supporters expect a Senate version of the bill to be introduced soon.

Bill’s supporters respond
A bill sponsor said suggestions of lobbying influence are absurd. The bill has cleared the Commerce Committee on two occasions, said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.

“The reason the bill has moved swiftly is that a pregnant woman buying peas on a shelf in Michigan has the same right to food safety information as a pregnant woman buying peas in California,” Rogers said.

Rogers said congressional Democrats are using the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal — which involved millions of dollars from Abramoff clients to woo friends and win influence in Congress. “We’re going to hear this on every other bill,” he said.

A spokesman for the Food Products Association said the lack of a hearing probably comes from the bill’s broad support and not from industry input. There are at least 227 co-sponsors in the 435-member House.

“It hasn’t been a priority that the bill get through committee without a hearing,” said FPA spokesman Tim Willard. “Rather, our focus is on seeing the bill approved by the full House, by a bipartisan majority.”

A spokeswoman for Blunt said his wife does not lobby any House members but may have contacted members of the Senate.