More food labeling, not less, is needed

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Given the sad state of affairs in today’s affairs of state – record federal budget deficits, record trade deficits, illegal domestic eavesdropping, the sale of key U.S. ports – one would think the U.S. House of Representatives has more important problems to address than a proposal to virtually wipe out state food labeling laws.
Think again. Well, no actually; the biggest fish fried by the House March 8 was just that: the National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005. The uniformity act is a fat, old, carp that multinational food firms have been selling Congress for years.
The goal is to override nearly 200 state laws and make the Food and Drug Administration – the folks that approved Vioxx – the final word for food labeling on everything from fruit to nuts. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture controls meat and poultry.)
The Grocery Gang’s pitch is deceptively simple: American consumers are confused by a web of state and federal rules on food labels. What’s needed is a streamlined, “science-based food safety standards” system and uniform, national warning labels so “consumers will be able to have confidence in the safety of the food supply. …”
This is according to Big Food’s biggest lobbyist, the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Read slowly. If that explanation is read more slowly a second time – slow enough to keep your eyes focused during the classic Capitol Hill spin cycle – what the association really wants is less regulation and less labeling.
The proposal, known as H.R. 4167 “is not a simple food-safety uniformity bill,” explained the nonprofit, independent Consumers Union Feb. 15.
“Under the guise of national ‘uniformity,’ this bill would eliminate critical state laws that protect consumer health while leaving in place an inadequate federal system based on the lowest common denominator protection,” opines the group.
Consumers Union isn’t the only national voice that opposes watering down local food safety and food labeling laws. Attorneys general of 39 states sent a joint letter to Congress noting the uniformity labeling proposal “eviscerates” important consumer warnings now carried on labels in their states.
The proposal drew similar fire from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. The association’s current president and Virginia’s state ag director, J. Carlton Courter III, notes the proposal “threatens existing food safety programs in the states” where, he adds, 80 percent of all U.S. food inspections occur.
Nice try. Not surprising, the food fat cats at the Grocery Manufacturers Association disparage such claims with soft and soothing silliness. The uniformity law is “common-sense legislation” that helps “families in an ever-changing, confusing food labeling environment.”
Despite this warm and fuzzy effort to help the seemingly helpless, the association, like the House Energy and Commerce Committee that passed the legislation Dec. 15 on a 30-18 party-line vote, saw no need to sort out this confusing environment with public hearings.
The GOP-dominated committee simply imposed the change and pushed the legislation on to the House floor. How the nearly $700-billion-a-year food and beverage lobby got the radical change this far is instructive.
“It simply came back year after year after year,” explains Ronnie Cummins with the Organic Consumers Association. “The first letter I wrote Congress to oppose eliminating state food labeling rules was in 1997.”
Better plan. This time, however, the favor seekers formed a rich, well-manicured Astroturf lobby, called the National Uniformity for Food Coalition, to give the appearance the proposal had vast, well-manicured grassroots support.
Grassroots support from coalition members like Cargill, the American Meat Institute, ConAgra, Dean Foods, Hormel, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council.
The latter, you may recall, have opposed federal country of origin labeling, but now want federal oversight of all food labeling.
Why in the world – when all empirical evidence shows that more food labeling, not less, sells more food more quickly and at higher prices – would the National Pork Producers Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association endorse Big Agbiz’s plan to run states out of food labeling?
Ask ‘em next time you’re asked to either join ‘em or renew your membership.
More labeling. In the meantime, farmers and ranchers should be fighting for more labeling, not less, that boosts prices and ensures their products’ origin, safety and quality.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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