The vote is considered a victory for the food industry, which fought for years for national standards for food labeling and contributed millions of dollars to lawmakers' campaigns.
Consumers groups and state regulators warned that the bill would undo more than 200 state laws, including California's landmark Proposition 65, that protect public health. They argued that local legislators and consumers know better their societies and environments and are better equipped to safeguard public health than legislators in Washington.
"The purpose of this legislation is to keep the public from knowing about the harm they may be exposed to in food," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), a key critic of the measure, said in a statement.
Under the law, any state that wanted to keep its own tougher standards for food labeling would have to ask for approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which has been criticized by food safety groups as slow to issue consumer warnings.
The measure was approved after a debate in which House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco accused the Republican majority of "shredding the food safety net that we have built in this country."
The bill passed 283 to 139, with the support of many Democrats. The Bay Area's 12 Democratic members opposed the bill, while Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) supported it. The legislation faces a tougher battle in the more evenly divided Senate, and there are signs of growing opposition to the measure.
Two leading consumer groups criticized the House for approving the bill with no hearings on the legislation in the eight years since it was first introduced.
"Despite the food industry's rhetoric, this bill is a sweeping rollback of decades of state action to protect consumers," said Susanna Montezemolo, policy analyst with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "It would reduce food safety protections to the lowest common denominator and make states jump through expensive bureaucratic hoops to enact future food safety protections."
Chris Waldrop, deputy director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said: "This bill guts existing laws designed to protect consumers and would enact the most sweeping overhaul of food safety laws in decades. State action on food safety has led to consumer protections not covered by federal laws, such as the elimination of arsenic in drinking water."
Thirty-nine state attorneys general also opposed the legislation. In a letter to the House this week, they said the measure would "strip state governments of the ability to protect their residents through state laws and regulations." Also opposing the bill were the National Conference of State Legislatures and associations of state food and drug officials and state agriculture departments.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest said: "If these Members of Congress truly wanted to advance food safety they would fully fund the FDA's Center for Food-Safety and Applied Nutrition, which the President proposes further shrinking of next year. The Senate should block this reckless rollback of food-safety laws."