The National Uniformity for Food Act
By Miriam Marcus

“Common Sense Consumer Initiative” or Large Agri-Business Corporations’ Easy Way Out of Complying with Hundreds of State Food Safety Labeling Laws?

The House of Representatives passed the “National Unity for Food Act”, H.R. 4167 on March 8th by a vote of 283-139. The bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, where it may get passed to the Senate floor for a vote. 94% of Republicans support the bill and 64% of Democrats oppose it.

The act, first introduced in 1998 by North Carolina’s Republican Representative Richard Burr, was re-introduced in November, 2005 by Michigan’s Republican Representative Michael Rogers and, if passed, would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), creating a national uniform standard for the labeling of food packaged for interstate commerce.

For or Against the Consumer

According to the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA), this “common-sense bill” aims to help consumers by developing a nationally standardized catalog of food safety and warning labels, helping “families in an ever-changing, confusing food labeling environment.” Under current regulation, each state has the power to set their own requirements for food safety information that is printed on packaged foods. The GMA stresses that the existing regulations allow states’ labeling practices to conflict with one another “fostering confusion” among consumers, while a uniform national standard would aid consumers in making informed and educated decisions about the food they buy. If every state has a different set of rules, a consumer in one state may be less informed than in another.

The Organic Consumer’s Association (OCA) asserts that consumers are more interested than ever in the quality of ingredients in the foods they eat. Passing the National Uniformity for Food Act, they say, creates a more difficult path for advocates of food safety to inform and protect consumers. The Consumers Union worries that a national standard would “reduce food safety protections to the lowest common denominator.” It would no longer be imperative for food companies to print warning labels about critical information regarding genetically modified foods, brain-damaging levels of mercury in fish, egg safety, dangerous additives in dietary supplements and pesticides on produce, to name a few.

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A Question of State

Under H.R. 4167, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would collaborate with each of the 50 states to develop the national standard for food labeling. The GMA asserts that this balances states’ rights and consumers’ needs resulting in consistent information throughout every state. Moreover, when an individual state’s standard is different than the national standard, the state will be allowed to ask the FDA for exemption and keep their regulations, or to accept the state’s standard as the national standard, under “imminent hazard to health” warnings. The FDA has the final say based on “the best-available science.”

Opponents of the bill, namely the OCA, argue that this bill will wipe out nearly 200 state food labeling laws currently in practice. “What the association really wants is less regulation and less labeling,” stated the OCA on their Web site. Many of the state laws that would be overridden by the enactment of this bill are much stricter than the national guidelines the National Uniformity for Food Act would lay out. Specifically, California’s landmark Proposition 65, which requires labeling of food products containing substances linked to cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions, would be nullified by the bill in question. The FDA is also criticized by food safety advocates for the slow pace at which they issue warnings to consumers. Passing the act, then, will make it a considerable bureaucratic challenge for states that want to retain stricter standards for food labeling, and lead to further difficulty in setting a more stringent, consumer-informed national standard.


H.R. 4167 is “narrow in scope,” vows the GMA, limiting its coverage to food safety and warning labels on packaged foods. Other state food laws are not addressed by this bill, including warnings about the sanitation of pecans and indications about whether packaged seafood is fresh or frozen. States will continue to set their own regulations for the labeling of these and other food products.

The OCA disputes this view, pleading that the bill covers “everything from fruit to nuts.” California officials site specific examples of their state’s legislation that would be overridden by the passing of the bill. Due to fear of legal action under Proposition 65, levels of arsenic in bottled water have dropped, and many bakers have removed potassium bromate, a likely carcinogen, from their breads and pastries. If the National Uniformity for Food Act is passed, these companies would no longer have a reason to make such improvements in the quality and healthfulness of their product; without the threat of labeling packages about the presence of harmful substances, manufacturers will continue to lower their standards, allowing consumers to purchase and consume these unsafe ingredients unknowingly.

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Neighborhood Enforcers

Under the proposed legislation, administrators of sanitation and inspections will remain under the jurisdiction of states and localities, ensures the bill’s supporters. Local authorities will continue to enforce regulations covering food and milk preparation/services. In this way, states will have the authority to maintain the national standards according to their desired level of efficiency.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture points out, however, that 80% of food inspections already do occur under local enforcements, and that the food safety programs under which they are administered are the very systems being threatened by the passing of the Uniformity Act.

Shellfish Warnings

Preparation, packaging and consumption of shellfish are especially important issues to many consumers. Supporters of the bill agree that federal uniform standards on packaged food labeling are more effective than state standards on food safety. The GMA promises that, if the proposed bill passes, states will remain free to require food warning labels about the effects of mercury in fish and other cautions about the consumption of shellfish, at individual states’ discretion.

Thirty-nine State Attorneys General joined efforts in composing a letter to Congress voicing their concerns that the National Uniformity for Food Act would gravely damage these and other consumer warnings. Critical information about exposure to substances linked to reproductive health problems, brain damage in infants, cancer, birth defects and other unhealthy outcomes will no longer be legally mandated. Whether fish is fresh or frozen is just one of many components of food labeling that needs to be addressed.

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Fad or Fact

It’s fairly apparent to most consumers that what is deemed healthy (or not) often changes on the basis of a new scientific study. Supporters of H.R. 4167 aim to protect consumers by “raising the bar” on food safety standards. The new federal regulations about warning labels would be based on a consensus review of published scientific data relating to the ingredient or substance in question. This way, neither politics nor health and dieting fads would drive public policy on issues of food labeling—another confusing barrage of information consumers are currently forced to sort out for themselves.

On the other hand, opponents of the bill feel that while daily news and diet fads do affect what consumers eat on a short-term basis, these momentary findings do not last and would not dictate legislation. The FDA’s untimely response time to new scientific findings poses a serious threat to the consumer base. What some deem as fad, such as California’s progressive take on healthy cuisine and their passing of Proposition 65 in 1986, others view as advanced and enlightened policy, inspiring others to adopt more stringent regulations in their states.

Down to the Dollar

Supporters of the proposed legislation concur that under current regulation, food processing plants are subject to confusing and costly requirements that differ from state to state. Food manufacturers and distributors are forced to comply with unfair costs resulting from inconsistent rules from state to state. It is not uncommon for food packaged in one state to be purchased and consumed in another, and therefore protection of the consumer should be uniform from state to state. Backers of the bill further reasoned that the inconsistencies “drive up costs and keep some consumers in the dark on matters that may affect their health” when every consumer deserves to be on the same page.

If passed, it will cost an estimated $100 million over 5 years to implement the new act, cited the Congressional Budget Office. The FDA will endure time-consuming – and therefore budget-consuming – reviews of state petitions for exemptions and proposals to change new federal standards. Opponents of the bill argue that the real issue of dollars lies in campaign contributions made to the Republican Party – more than $3 million in the 2005-06 election years – by groups who make up the National Uniformity of Food Coalition. The members of this group have donated $31 million since 1998 when the National Uniformity for Food Act was first proposed to the House of Representatives.

What Happens Now?

The National Uniformity for Food Act, H.R. 4167, is currently in Senate Committee. The bill is not yet on the Senate floor agenda. Should Congress pass this bill?

Let the debate begin.

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The Issue:
The National Uniformity for Food Act, which would create a national uniform standard of labeling on packaged foods, was passed by the House of Representatives and is now under review by a Senate Committee.

The Summary:
To Pass: The National Uniformity for Food Coalition, made up of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and other large food chains, contends that all states should have the same level of food safety and all consumers should be on a level playing field of food safety and warning standards.

Not to Pass: Opponents of the bill, namely the Organic Consumers Organization and the Consumers Union, fear that this new legislation would wipe out 200 stricter state laws. The nation would be left with an “inadequate federal system based on the lowest common denominator of protection.”

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1 The Library of Congress, 27 October 2005

2 PR Newswire United Business Media, 3 March 2006

3 Alan Guebert, “More Food Labeling Needed, Not Less,” Journal Star, 12 March 2006

4 U.S. Newswire, 9 March 2006

5 Zachary Coil, “House Votes to Dump State Food Safety Laws,”, 9 March 2006

6 Toby Eckert, “House Oks Bill That Could Override Food Safety Warnings,”, 9 March 2006

7 Consumers Union Organization, “Congress Takes a Bite Out of Consumers’ Food Safety Protections,”
8 March 2006


9 Project Vote Smart

   Published: March 2006