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    News in Depth

    House Approves Fed'l Legislation For Nat'l Food Labeling That CA Att'y Gen'l Lockyer Warned Could Undermine Tougher CA Food Labeling Req'ts.; LB-Area Congressmembers Millender-McDonald & Rohrabacher Both Vote "Yes"

    (March 8, 2006) -- The House of Representatives today (March 8) approved a bill to implement federal food labeling standards that CA Attorney General Bill Lockyer has publicly warned could undermine tougher CA food labeling laws.

    LB area Congressmembers Juanita Millender-McDonald (D., Carson-LB) and Dana Rohrabacher (R., HB-LB-PV) both voted "yes" on HR 4167, the "National Uniformity for Food Act." If approved by the Senate, the measure would federally preempt (trump) state food safety notice laws nationwide unless they are the same as FDA national standards. The bill includes procedures by which CA and other states can request FDA approval to permit tougher or different labelling requirements...which FDA could deny.

    The bill was opposed by several environmental groups (including the Natural Resources Defense Council) and supported by multiple food industry interests.

    Proponents of the legislation stressed the desirability of having national standards for food labelling. If the standard is needed to protect residents of one state, it should protect residents of other states, they argued.

    But in a Feb. 10 memo to CA's Congressional delegation, CA Attorney General Lockyer said the legislation "endangers important health public protections California law provides its citizens...I wanted to make sure members of the California delegation fully understand this threat, and urge you to oppose this bill." The "dramatic sweep of this bill may not have been made apparent," AG Lockyer wrote, adding "perhaps the proponents did not make clear the extent to which HR 4167 would deprive California residents of the particular benefits of Proposition 65. This landmark law was passed by 63% of the voters, and it has reduced Californians' exposure to toxic chemicals in food."

    [To view Attorney General Lockyer's memo, click here].

    Congressmembers Millender-McDonald and Rohrabacher joined as co-sponsors of the bill in October 2005...and it had 226 co-sponsors when it reached the House floor for initial debate last week.

    In today's (March 8) House action, lawmakers sent the bill to the Senate on a 283-139 vote. 212 Republicans joined 71 Democrats in voting "yes." 13 Republicans joined 125 Democrats and 1 Independent in voting "no."

    The House debated amendments to the bill on which Congressmembers Millender-McDonald and Rohrabacher at times voted together, and at other times split. However on two key proposed amendments by fellow Democrats (offered by Cong. Henry Waxman of L.A. and Lois Capps of Santa Barbara), Congresswoman Millender-McDonald -- who was present to vote on prior and subsequent amendments -- was recorded as "not voting." will report these details in a separate article.

    As with last year's debate on the federal Energy bill which gave a federal agency (FERC) the power to trump state laws on siting and safety of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities, Republicans (who historically supported "states rights") sided with industry interests to support giving another federal agency (FDA) the power to trump state laws on food labelling. Democrats (who historically backed federal agency prerogatives over state laws) sought to maintain state control over food labeling and safety standards.

    On Feb. 17, CA's two U.S. Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, sent letters to Senate leaders Bill Frist (R, TN) and Harry Reid (D., NV), blasting the bill and urging its defeat in the Senate:

    [begin text]

    We are writing to express our opposition to H.R. 4167, the National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005, and to ask that if this bill is sent to the Senate, you join us in opposing this legislation...It is a direct assault on California’s Proposition 65, a law passed by sixty-three percent of voters that has reduced exposure to toxic chemicals in food.

    This legislation rolls back essential food safety laws and preempts state and local authority by prohibiting states and localities from enacting food safety regulations stronger than those required by the federal government. It also prevents state and local governments from filling gaps in food safety laws whenever the federal government has no warning standard for a food product.

    California’s Proposition 65 is the target of this legislation. It requires warning labels to disclose when products contain chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects. When California voters passed Proposition 65, they clearly stated that consumers have the right to know if their food contains chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects. We believe that states and localities should have the right to provide this information.

    For example, a recent California law that prohibits the sale of imported Mexican candy containing lead would be overturned by this legislation. This candy is popular with millions of Californians. California’s law imposes a fine for the sale of such candy and directs the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to set a regulatory level allowing only "naturally occurring" lead to be present in candy. California took this action because the FDA’s allowable lead level for imported Mexican candies fails to protect public health. In fact, the FDA’s standard allows 20 times more lead in candy than California’s law permits. Recent research has shown that levels of lead previously considered safe are actually harmful, reducing children’s IQ, causing damage to developing fetuses, and harming the development of children’s nervous systems.

    This legislation would also preempt California’s ongoing efforts to assure that parents and women of childbearing age are aware of the risks to unborn children and infants from consuming too much fish with high levels of mercury. California’s efforts reinforce the FDA’s own policies. However, the FDA chooses to inform consumers of these risks via a press release on its website. In contrast, California and at least six other states require that information be posted at the point of sale, in stores that sell fresh fish and restaurants that serve fish.

    Although critics of Proposition 65 say varying state standards pose a burden to food manufacturers, past administrations have dismissed this claim. President George H.W. Bush’s Administration concluded in 1989 that "no Federal preemptive action" either by regulation or otherwise "is warranted." This was also the conclusion of the Reagan-Bush Administration.

    We urge you to join us in strongly opposing this legislation. Not only will this legislation undo Proposition 65 but it will preempt more than 150 laws in all 50 states designed to protect the health of consumers. Should this legislation come before the Senate, we will do everything in our power to stop it...

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