Washington -- Federal lawmakers on Thursday sparred over a bill to pre-empt all state food safety labeling laws that are tougher than federal rules, including California's Proposition 65, which requires food manufacturers to list any cancer- or birth-defect-causing substances in their products.
The House put off a vote on the bill until next week after House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-San Dimas (Los Angeles County), concluded that lawmakers could not finish debate before many left for a post-Hurricane Katrina visit to the Gulf Coast.
But the controversy over the food labeling bill appears to be growing. A bipartisan group of 37 state attorneys general, including California's Bill Lockyer, sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday warning that the measure could undermine state's rights and consumer protections.
"Important consumer warnings about mercury in fish, arsenic in drinking water and lead in cans are just a few examples of state food labeling requirements that would be eviscerated by this bill," the letter warned. Supporters of the bill argue that a single national standard for food safety is needed to avoid confusion for consumers and food producers, who complain about having to create different food labels for different states.
"These different state standards hamper the flow of interstate commerce," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. "They also lead to increased costs to manufacturers and distributors that are then, of course, passed on to consumers."
Critics of the bill, however, describe the legislation as an effort by food manufacturers to undo many state laws and regulations they previously opposed.
"The real effect of this legislation will be the deregulation of the United States food industry," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles.
The food industry has been lobbying Congress to pass similar legislation for two decades, spurred by California voters' approval of Prop. 65 in 1986. Supporters of the bill include industry giants such as Nestle USA, the HJ Heinz Co., Kraft Foods and Sara Lee Corp., as well as supermarket chains and trade associations that have joined to form the National Uniformity for Food Coalition.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that at least 200 state laws or regulations could be invalidated by the new measure. Among them:
-- A law passed by the Alaska Legislature last year that requires labeling of any genetically engineered fish sold in the state.
-- A provision in Maine requiring signs stating that eating smoked alewives can pose a health risk.
-- A state law in Oregon requiring that any food that has been "salvaged" disclose that fact.
-- A requirement in California that supermarkets and other stores post health warnings about the high levels of mercury in certain fish. The new bill would allow states to petition the Food and Drug Administration to keep their laws in effect. But the secretary of Health and Human Services could approve the exemptions only if states can prove there is no other way to protect public health and the law would not "unduly burden interstate commerce."
"Can you imagine that sovereign states of this country have to go hat in hand to a federal bureaucracy to allow them to continue laws that their people accepted, passed under their rules by state legislatures and governors, to protect their population?" Waxman said.
Sponsors of the bill claim the effect of the measure is being exaggerated. They noted that Congress has previously approved national standards for nutrition labeling, beef and poultry inspections, and other food-related issues.
"You're not going to find any family in America that thinks we ought to have 50 states and 50 different organizations trying to determine what is safe in our food and what is not," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chief sponsor of the measure.
The bill faces strong opposition from state regulators, including the Association of Food and Drug Officials and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. They argue that many state rules protecting the public health will be eliminated simply because there is no equivalent federal rule.
The legislation has 226 co-sponsors, including 59 Democrats, and appears to have enough support to pass the House. A vote Thursday on the rule for debating the bill next week was approved by a 216-to-197 margin.
But the measure faces greater hurdles in the more evenly divided Senate, where seven Democratic lawmakers have sent a letter to their colleagues opposing the bill. Both of California's Democratic senators have vowed to try to block the measure.
E-mail Zachary Coile at firstname.lastname@example.org.