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Farmers should be fighting for more food labeling, not less
Farm & Food File
By Alan Guebert
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.

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 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 USDA 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...” according to Big Food’s biggest lobbyist, the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

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 GMA 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,” opined the CU.

Consumers Union isn’t the only national voice in opposition to 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 Depart-ments of Agriculture. NASDA’s current president, J. Carlton Courter III, Virginia’s state ag director, noted the proposal “threatens existing food safety programs in the states” where, he added, 80 percent of all U.S. food inspections occur.

Not surprising, the food fat cats at the Grocery Manufacturers 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 GMA, like House Energy and Commerce Committee which 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,” explained Ronnie Cummins with the Organic Consumers Association. “The first letter I wrote Congress to oppose eliminating state food labeling rules was in 1997.”

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 Assoc. 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 more food labeling, not less, sells more food more quickly and at higher prices would the NPPC and NCBA endorse Big Agbiz’s plan to run states out of food labeling?

Ask them next time you’re asked to either join them or renew your membership.

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.

This farm news was published in the March 15, 2006 issue of Farm World.

3/15/2006