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Chattanooga Newspaper Slams Congress Move to Outlaw State Food Safety Labels

When grocery shoppers look at where many of their fresh foods originate, they typically find a range of international sources: seafood from fish farms and foreign trawlers around the world, fruit from South American countries, vegetables from countries in Latin America, cheeses from Europe. While this has become routine, it may surprise many shoppers to know that it is state governments, and not the federal government, that typically ensure the safety of most commonly imported foods, along with the safety of many foods, including milk, from their own states and others around the country. Given the primacy of states for fixing and enforcing food safety and labeling rules, it¹s troubling that the Republican-controlled Congress is preparing this week to strip states of their food safety powers and to transfer that power to the Food and Drug Administration.

The pending plan in the House to abrogate the traditional states¹ role is curious on at least two counts. One is that the plan likely will result in a huge void, much to the detriment of citizens, because the federal government has neither the staff nor the political will to assume the states¹ role. That vast void suggests the second reason this power grab is troubling: the Republican House plan looks precisely like another egregious attempt to eliminate valuable state regulatory authority as another stealthy favor to big business.

Want to know if your food contains cancer agents? If there¹s harmful bacteria in your shellfish? If toxins are sprayed on your apples or lettuce? If your bag of Georgia pecans are rancid or insect-infested or have been checked for mold? Or simply if your catfish is from a Mississippi or a Vietnamese fish farm?

Too bad. Under the House¹s proposed National Uniformity for Food Act, state governments, which now handle such inspections, warnings and emergency actions, would no longer have authority to provide such information if it exceeded what the federal government gathers and provides. And if the federal government has neither the direction or staff to take the state¹s place, well, that¹s too bad, as well. That information just won¹t be available.

The latter is likely. The FDA previously has not developed the capacity to oversee the inspection and regulation of many foods and their distribution through grocery stores and restaurants because such work traditionally has been seen as the states¹ prerogative. The FDA and states have worked jointly to develop many food safety standards, but states have carried the burden of creating labeling and inspection programs, and in many cases that of identifying risks not subject to federal inspections. States also presently employ thousands of workers to fulfill those functions.

The proposed law that would undermine that traditional division of labor seems to have been propelled by food industry companies that want to escape current and pending state regulation. California¹s pending referendum on Proposition 65, for example, would require warning labels on any foods that contain unsafe levels of carcinogens. Food safety advocates in other states want action to ban the use of treating and packaging red meats with carbon dioxide to keep them from turning brown.

Big food industries generally object to such state rules. The National Fisheries Institute, the Pecan Shellers Association and the International Dairy Foods Association, for example, are among those that have aligned to support the legislation and its pre-emption of state control.

Republican congressmen, unfortunately, seem more than willing benefactors to food businesses. Though they have not held one hearing on the National Uniformity for Food Act, most have signed on as co-sponsors, and the bill is scheduled for a floor vote on Thursday. If they care a whit what ordinary, tax-paying constituents think about their rights for health and safety information about the food we eat, they will cancel that vote and hold hearings on the need for state authority.