The Senate has passed a bill that would give food manufacturers three more months to comply with federal food labeling rules, sparing them the cost of junking old labels. The House of Representatives is expected to approve the bill soon.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), passed the Senate late Tuesday after a week of intensive lobbying by food packaging groups, which said the industry would lose at least $100 million if forced to discard old labels.
"This is a practical solution to a very pressing problem," said Steven B. Steinborn, an attorney with Hogan & Hartson in Washington, which represents several companies that package private-label foods for grocery chains. "The three-month extension will provide enormous benefits, giving manufacturers time to use existing labels."
Labeling rules that went into effect on May 8 require companies to display extensive nutritional information on food labels. U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules require that any package filled after that date must bear the new label.
The FDA made no attempt to block Senate action. The extension is not expected to have a big impact on consumers, since many foods already have the new labels.
As the deadline neared, some packaging companies and food processors--particularly those that make private-label foods for supermarkets--began pushing for an extension that would allow them to use up their inventories of old labels.
The Can Manufacturers Institute, an industry group representing the nation's four largest beverage can makers, obtained a temporary restraining order on May 6 barring the government from enforcing the rules against them.
The Senate bill permits all food companies to use labels printed before May 8 until Aug. 8. To receive an extension, the companies must certify to the secretary of health and human services that it will comply with new labeling requirements after Aug. 8.
The Senate bill makes a special allowance for producers of milk or juice products, allowing them to print old labels up to Aug. 8. This is because many small milk and juice producers have been unable to convert printing plates to the new label format.