WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Food industry interests have applauded action by the Senate Agriculture committee that would prohibit states or municipalities from requiring warning notices on food labels that go beyond what the U.S. mandates for non-meat and poultry products.
The committee, by unanimous vote, approved a bill that preempts states from requiring any warning about food safety that is at odds with those adopted by the Food and Drug Administration. The bill would not affect state or municipal labeling requirements relating to item pricing, container deposits, religious dietary labeling, statements about geographic origin or that the food previously was frozen.
The bill next goes to the Senate floor for a vote, although no time frame for this action has been set. A companion House bill has been introduced, but no hearings or votes have been held. The U.S. previously mandated that state food labeling laws not exceed those for meat and poultry set by the Agriculture Department.
"In today's world of national manufacturing and distribution, it makes no sense to have different labels in different states on the same products, especially is there is no real benefit to consumers," said C. Manly Molpus, the Grocery Manufacturers of America's president. Molpus said this law is needed to ensure there are no "conflicting state laws that require different information than established by FDA."
He said permitting states or municipalities to require labeling for a specific food ingredient deemed unsafe or suspect would create "consumer confusion and could lead to consumers ignoring all warnings."
Food processors and retailers -- who long have favored uniform national food labeling -- were especially concerned in 1998 when California proposed that any food containing sodium nitrite bear a warning on its label noting that the chemical is a suspected reproductive toxin. Sodium nitrite is a preservative found in many processed foods. It inhibits the growth of bacteria that produce botulism toxins.
Earlier this year, the state decided not to mandate a food warning label for the use of sodium nitrite.
Timothy Hammonds, president and chief executive officer, Food Marketing Institute here, said, "Clearly, in a global economy, it is very difficult for manufacturers to have different labels for different reasons and if the U.S. is going to be a proponent of a global economy, it must demonstrate some leadership in our own country."
Hammonds said retailers also have food labeling concerns, even though they generally do not operate food processing facilities. "Retailers often have distribution centers that serve more than one state and those with private-label products often move them across state lines," he said. "Of course, if consumers have a question about something on a food label, most times they ask their food retailer about it."
A spokesman for the National Grocers Association here said the organization "strongly supports" the Senate and House food labeling bills, explaining, "we believe national uniformity for these labels is very important."
The three trade groups are among 54 trade associations and companies that formed the National Uniformity for Food Coalition to seek enactment of the companion Senate and House labeling bills. Among the coalition's other members are the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Frozen Food Institute, American Meat Institute, Bestfoods, ConAgra, Inc., Del Monte Foods, Food Distributors International, General Mills, Gerber Products Co., International Dairy; Foods Association, the J.M. Smucker Co., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods, Inc., Nabisco, Inc., National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Food Processors Association, National Turkey Federation, PepsiCo, Inc, the Quaker Oats Co. and the Snack Food Association.
The outlook for passage of the Senate and House bills is clouded by the upcoming election, which could see the legislators adjourn as early as September to campaign for November's congressional and presidential races. Unless Congress reconvenes after the elections, pending bills expire along with the 106th Congress.
A GMA spokesman last week said the food industry is optimistic that the unanimous Senate committee vote will spur the Senate, and then the House, to enact the food labeling measures this year.