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National Food Safety Bill Faces Tough Fight on Capitol Hill



The impending fight will take to task a bill adopted by the House last month that challengers argue would eliminate rigorous long-term food safety standards at the state level, including progressive California.

The bill would supersede much of California's two-decade-old Proposition 65, which requires food containing chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects to bear warning labels, contend opponents.

"This legislation poses a clear threat to the health of every Californian and every American," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was quoted as saying yesterday at a joint news conference with fellow California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Advocates contend the bill would standardize and extend health and safety protections nationwide. It also would prevent undue and costly burdens on businesses that otherwise would have to customize products to meet varying state standards.

The bill is not the "extreme measure that some of the opponents are trying to characterize it," countered Cal Dooley, president and ceo of the Food Products Association, a food and beverage industry group.

Boxer and Feinstein, speaking in a room above the waterfront gourmet groceries and restaurants inside San Francisco's Ferry Building, pledged to fight the National Uniformity for Foods Act.

Their posture indicated that the battle, at least as the bill's opponents intend to frame it, will be as much about states' rights and California's leadership on health and safety issues as about food labeling laws.

"We will fight the good fight on the floor of the United States Senate," said Feinstein, declaring that if the bill becomes law, "the precautions that now exist in California and dozens of other states would be dumbed-down."

As a result of Proposition 65, for instance, grocers and food producers have had to alert consumers to the presence of mercury, which can damage human nervous systems, in fish. It also spurred bottled-water producers to reduce the amount of cancer-causing arsenic in their products.

FAVORING NATIONAL STANDARDS Backed by grocers, California farmers and other food producers, the bill currently on Capitol Hill would set national food safety and labeling standards. The federal rules would override state laws, although states could appeal for tougher rules and create their own when no national ones exist.

Nonetheless, those on the other side of this issue answer that states' attempt to set their own standards or to push for tougher national standards would be subject to a Byzantine and open-ended approval process.

"It is so complicated it would take me all day to explain it," said Boxer.

The bill's proponents, including Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) contend that uniform, national standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would protect people in every state and bolster consumer confidence.

According to his spokesperson Nicole Philbin, Pombo believes that consumer protection throughout the country is paramount and this law is important because it protects citizens equally.

California's Republican delegation voted unanimously for the bill, which passed the House with 283 votes, including those of 71 Democrats. With two exceptions, none of which was in the Bay Area, California's Democratic delegation voted against the bill.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also has sided against the bill, decrying it as an attack on states' rights to enact laws protecting people and the environment.

Still, the bill's bipartisan support in the House gives it new momentum. The legislation's passage marked the first time it reached a floor vote since the first version of the bill was introduced seven years ago. Uniform standards would let grocers and other businesses avoid the cost of producing and labeling products to suit different state standards, Dooley said.

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