By GAP Food & Drug Safety Director Mark Cohen, this editorial also appeared in the Summit Daily News (CO), Daily Sun News (WA) and Cumberland Times-News (MD). 

Wouldn’t you want to know if your food can cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems, and allergic reactions? Or that the meat you are about to buy was treated with carbon monoxide to make it look fresh instead of spoiled? If so, you better let your U.S. senator know.

Late in the evening on March 8, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that actually prohibits states from requiring food labels that warn of health dangers, unless the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already issued that exact same warning.

It’s not as though the watchdogs for public safety were silent. The National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005 (NUFA) was opposed by 39 state attorneys general, the Association of Food and Drug Officials, and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture whose first priority is public safety and health. But the bill was rammed through the House by food industry lobbyists without hearings or a debate.

Just how bad is this law? The House even voted down an amendment to let states enact or keep laws to protect their food supplies from a bioterrorism attack.

Apparently, money speaks louder than homeland security and public health. Industry groups invested three million dollars in congressional campaign contributions and NUFA is their reward. Of course, that’s not what the House sponsors claim. Their pretext for promoting this anti-consumer legislation is that state food safety laws subject the industry to differing rules and somehow confuse consumers.

That’s a smokescreen. Common sense state laws have resulted in warnings about lead in calcium supplements, lower arsenic levels in bottled water, and the removal of possible carcinogens from baked goods. These laws protect consumers and aren’t the least bit confusing.

If enacted, NUFA would gut some 200 state and local food safety and labeling requirements. To keep tougher food safety laws in force, states would have to beg the FDA for permission. So much for states’ rights.

The truth is that the food industry wants to make the FDA the sole arbiter of labeling, because FDA management has repeatedly demonstrated that it sees its primary client as industry, not consumers. Just look at the Vioxx debacle.

In 2004, FDA scientist Dr. David Graham’s research showed that Vioxx, Merck’s blockbuster arthritis drug, caused more than 40,000 American deaths. But rather than fighting to remove Vioxx from the market, FDA management engaged in dirty tricks to silence Graham. It was only when Graham went before the Senate and media that the dangers of Vioxx were finally exposed.

Why did the FDA act so unethically, attempting to silence its own expert? Because the budgetary and career advancement incentives at FDA are stacked in favor of approving new drugs – even drugs that are ineffective and unsafe. No wonder in the case of Vioxx, the FDA, rather than protecting consumers, stood fully behind Merck.

This anti-consumer management style isn’t lost on the food industry either, which also sees the FDA as a compliant partner. The FDA’s track record for food safety is poor, as the agency has continually failed to make public health its first priority. While the agency is well aware of the toxic dangers that mercury in seafood poses, the FDA has never acted to ensure that this information is made available to consumers. Due to the FDA’s neglect, 16 states have had to enact laws warning of the dangers of mercury in seafood, and now NUFA threatens to negate these laws. Clearly, America’s food supply is safer with tough state laws than without them.

The Senate may decide to take up a companion bill to NUFA at anytime, making it the law of the land. If this happens, let’s not have another rush to judgment. The Senate must hold hearings, review the evidence, and have a real debate on whether the public is well served by preempting state food labeling laws. If the Senate lives up to its reputation as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” we have no doubt that this sham “uniformity” bill will be exposed as the abuse of federalism and the affront to public health and national security that it is.

Contact your senator now. It may be the only way to be sure that you know what you’re eating.