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House Approves Food-Safety Warnings Bill

Times Staff Writer

Legislation passed the House on Wednesday that would give federal regulators the final word over food-safety warnings -- a measure critics said could nullify state laws, such as California’s Proposition 65, that provide alerts to consumers about substances that may pose a health risk.

Under the bill, the Food and Drug Administration would establish national standards for determining when such warnings would be required on packaging, on store shelves and in advertising.

States would be prohibited from imposing different rules without federal approval, which the critics said could preempt about 200 existing laws.

The bill’s proponents say it is needed to prevent the food industry from having to navigate a thicket of differing state laws that can drive up food costs.

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The measure is the latest example of a push by congressional Republicans to rein in state actions some say unfairly hamper business. Other efforts have focused on environmental and energy regulations.

Although the food-safety bill passed the House easily, 283 to 139, it faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.

Attorneys general from about 40 states oppose the measure, as do consumer advocacy groups.

California’s two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have pledged to work hard to derail the bill, saying it would undermine Proposition 65.

That initiative, approved by state voters in 1986, requires public notices on products that contain substances “known to the state to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Opponents said the federal legislation could force the removal of signs in California stores that warn about mercury in certain fish and thwart the state’s efforts to require warnings about a substance in potato chips and French fries.

State officials say the legislation also would remove Proposition 65’s incentive for food makers to remove potentially harmful substances from their products rather than post warnings that could hurt sales.

A representative of the California attorney general’s office plans to start visiting Senate offices Friday to lobby against the legislation.

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In a letter opposing the measure, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said it would deny Californians “the health information they demanded in passing Proposition 65.”

The bill’s supporters accused Lockyer and others of exaggerating its impact, saying states would be able to petition the FDA to maintain their food-safety warnings or extend them to the rest of the nation -- so long as they could prove the cautions were based on good science.

“Scientifically acceptable guidelines do not change from state to state,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the bill’s sponsor. “If something is dangerous in one state, it is dangerous in all states.”

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) said, “If we have things in California that are beneficial to Californians, I think that they should be there to benefit the rest of the country as well.”

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Calvin M. Dooley, an ex-congressman from Visalia who heads the Food Products Assn. and who is lobbying for the bill, said he was encouraged by the strong support it received in the House.

“This creates a lot of momentum” for the measure, he said.

Joining 212 Republicans in backing the bill were 71 Democrats. Voting against it were 125 Democrats, 13 Republicans and one independent.

The measure split California’s House delegation mostly along party lines. Among Republicans, only Reps. Mary Bono of Palm Springs and Dan Lungren of Gold River opposed it; Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield did not vote. Among Democrats, only Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson favored it; Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno did not vote.

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During floor debate, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said the bill’s supporters “want states to come hat in hand to the Food and Drug Administration ... and that agency will decide whether the state laws can continue in effect. They will have higher power than the state legislatures and governors.”

Many businesses are lobbying for the bill, including the California Grocers Assn. and the California Chamber of Commerce.

A letter sent to the state’s House members by a coalition of California food-industry groups says the legislation “provides checks and balances on states that might want to require a warning label that may not be scientifically justified,” something the food industry contends has occurred under Proposition 65.

The push for the bill gained momentum after Lockyer’s office went to court last summer seeking to force companies to place warnings on potato chips, French fries and similar products because they contain higher levels of acrylamide -- which has been found to cause cancer in laboratory rats -- than other foods.

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Acrylamide is formed when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures. Food industry officials dispute that the level of the substance found in any food has been proved hazardous to humans.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took no position on the federal legislation, drawing criticism from Waxman.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson said the governor was reviewing the bill, but was occupied with trying to meet a Friday deadline for putting his infrastructure improvement plan on the state ballot this November.


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