Big Food's Bad Idea

Some people called it a folly of know-nothing Luddites. Others praised it as an important blow against technological hubris. But no matter where you stood on the 2004 ballot measure in California's Mendocino County that banned the cultivation of GMO crops, it's generally agreed that the initiative represented all that is best about local democracy -- citizens coming together to address an issue that's important to them. And in the Mendocino case, it was an issue that is well-made for local governance, given how intimate food is, how uniquely attached to our sense of place.

The idea of food as a local resource is now under assault [PDF] from a congressional measure that would sharply restrict the ability of states and cities to establish their own food safety standards. If the proposal becomes law, nearly all of the decisions about the quality of our food will be made in Washington. For anyone who values a measure of local control over the food we eat, this is bad news.

For 100 years -- since the 1906 establishment of the Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act -- the federal government has set most of the safety standards for the food that ends up in grocery stores and restaurants. States and cities, however, can also make rules governing food safety, and as health consciousness has increased, many local governments have passed food rules in areas that federal regulations overlook.

For example, grocery stores in California are required to post information warning pregnant women to avoid certain fish, such as swordfish, that have high levels of mercury. Minnesota candy bars must disclose if alcohol is an ingredient, and Michigan bulk foods made with sulfites have to carry an allergy warning. In Rhode Island, shellfish is required to carry a sign saying whether it's been frozen.

Consumers may appreciate these rules, but the food conglomerates and the grocery chains do not. For the food corporations, the divergent federal, state and local rules are an annoyance that complicate selling the same exact products across the entire country. Especially irritating to Big Food is California's Proposition 65, which requires that consumers be notified about ingredients known to cause cancer or birth defects. The food companies fear their operations would be further complicated if other states passed similar laws.

So the food lobby is forcefully but quietly pushing the "National Uniformity for Food Act," a bill that would annul standards like those in California and set a single set of food labeling rules. Under the proposal, states would not be able to create any food regulations that go above and beyond the national standards. Though there has been hardly any debate on the law, the House is set to vote on the legislation March 9.

Consumer groups are strongly opposed to the bill. They say the legislation would eliminate some important safeguards, and they worry that the law will end up taking away a key avenue -- state action -- for raising food safety standards. This is indeed worrisome. State rules have often had the beneficial effect of compelling food makers to improve their practices, not only in the state where the rule is enacted, but across the country. California's Prop. 65, for instance, prompted food corporations to make changes nationwide, since no company wanted to create a separate package for food sold in the most populous state. Because many companies felt it would look better to simply remove some ingredients than to say their products contained carcinogens, the law has led to the phaseout of some 750 chemicals, according to California's attorney general.

The threat to food safety is real. But there's a larger issue at stake, and that's whether we want to continue prioritizing national food production and distribution, or if we should instead be lending support to local and regional food networks that provide fresher, tastier, healthier food. Placing all review of food standards at the federal level would cement concentration in the already highly concentrated food industry. Keeping some powers at the state level would help defend the ideal that at its best food is produced locally -- close to your home, by people you know.

On this issue, Congress is going against the grain of popular taste. In the last 15 years, the local food movement has grown wildly. Tens of thousands of families have enrolled in Community Supported Agriculture programs in which they receive weekly deliveries of fresh produce from individual farms. The number of U.S. farmers markets more than doubled from 1994 to 2004, according to the USDA. The public embrace of regional foods reveals one of the biggest problems with the pending legislation: As more and more food returns to a system of local production for local consumption, the need for state and municipal food safety regulations will increase not decrease. Congress is taking a step in the wrong direction.

The very name of the food corporations' bill should raise some concerns: "Uniformity for Food" sounds like a recipe for spoiling much of the fun in eating. What we enjoy most about food is precisely that it's not uniform; variety and novelty are what give local flavors and regional cuisines their spice. If the Alabama government wants to give consumers assurance that the grits they buy meet certain nutritional standards, it should be allowed to do so.

Tonight millions of Americans will go home and ask a simple question: "What's for dinner?" The fate of the bill before Congress will play a huge role in deciding who gets to provide the answer.


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