The Grocery Manufacturers Association and dozens of other trade groups are pushing for a federal law that could override state ingredient-disclosure rules and warning labels, including California’s landmark Proposition 65.
About 50 trade organizations have backed an effort for a national labeling law, saying a unified rule is needed instead of a patchwork of differing state requirements. They contend that the chaos of state legislation has become too much for businesses to bear.
“We ask for your support for a national solution to this growing list of state labeling and disclosure requirements,” according to a letter seeking lawmakers as sponsors and signed by organizations such as the American Chemistry Council and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “The time to establish a federal, science-based solution is now.”
The effort could challenge laws like Proposition 65, a set of rules that’s been immortalized in signs and labels across California — and frequently outside the state as well.
The trade groups, whose members include 3M Co., General Mills Inc. and other top companies, argue that states “do not uniformly have the scientific capacity and robust infrastructure to ensure adherence to the highest standards of scientific integrity and risk analysis,” according to the letter, which was viewed by Bloomberg.
The ACC circulated a document earlier this year to other trade groups laying out its case and seeking support for a national labeling law. It suggested amending the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act to include what it called “minimum scientific standards” for listing warnings or benefits. The document also discussed a “reform” of Proposition 65 to “require sound scientific basis for the listing of substances.”
Protecting that law was part of the agreement to update the 40-year-old federal Toxic Substances Control Act last year, which grandfathered in Proposition 65 and some regulations in other states, said Ansje Miller, director of policy and partnerships at the Center for Environmental Health. “Now, with this attempt, the chemical lobby is clearly breaking that promise,” she said.
The California proposition, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, took effect in 1986. It requires the state to maintain an updated list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm and for businesses to give “clear and reasonable” notice of exposure to those chemicals. That’s usually in the form of signs and labels.
Critics say such warnings can be excessive. They point to a current lawsuit that seeks to add warnings about a chemical in coffee. But proponents say the law has been successful in alerting consumers to hazards like lead.
Proposition 65 has served as a template for other states. In recent years, a number have enacted or weighed legislation regulating the use of certain chemicals in products. About 35 states have passed 173 measures, and more than 100 other bills are under consideration in two dozen states, according to environmental health coalition Safer States.
California recently passed a law that contains the strictest disclosure requirements in the country for listing ingredients in cleaning products, a measure opposed by the chemistry council and grocery association. New York is hammering out a similar measure.
Such actions can stymie consumers, said Claire Parker, a spokeswoman for a group of businesses that is forming called the Coalition for Accurate Product Labels.
“A growing number of states and localities are considering requirements for new disclosures or warning labels about specific ingredients on consumer-product packaging,” Parker said in an emailed statement. “Several groups have had discussions to explore the need for federal legislation establishing science-based, uniform, national standards for government-mandated ingredient disclosure and warning label programs.”
She cited a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision blocking a San Francisco law that required health warnings on soda advertisements, as well as an editorial in the Los Angeles Times warning that Prop 65 labels that aren’t supported by research can be counterproductive and dangerous.
The passage last year of the EPA’s updated toxics law limits states’ abilities to enact new regulations, and instead promotes a unified federal system.
Efforts to override state disclosure requirements for consumer products come on the heels of a battle last year over whether to require labels of genetically modified ingredients in food. Industry groups sought a national law that would supersede individual state mandates such as Vermont’s.
The final law signed last year makes the information available via QR codes or 800 numbers but doesn’t require on-package labels.
With chemical labeling, the same risk of a state-by-state hodgepodge exists, Parker said.
“The criteria and rationale for these initiatives is not consistent, threatening to leave consumers and retailers even more confused about what is and is not safe,” she said.