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Published: Saturday, 2/25/2006

States right in food fight

DESPITE their professed disdain for "one size fits all" laws, Republicans in Congress are ganging up with potentially dangerous legislation that would require uniform food-labeling regulations in all 50 states.

Such a federal law could be misleading or pose a hazard to consumers, who are now protected by the kind of individual state regulations that, in Michigan, for example, require a warning about possible allergic reactions to sulfites in bulk food. Or an Ohio regulation that forbids the use of the word "honey" on a food label unless the product actually contains honey.

Likewise, if Alabama wants to assure consumers that the grits they buy meet certain minimum nutritional requirements, labels in that state should be allowed to say so. And it is no major imposition on the seafood industry in Rhode Island to state on a label whether shellfish has been frozen.

Such labels and warnings on store shelves and in advertising would have to gain approval of federal regulators, and might be rejected, under the disingenuously titled "National Uniformity for Food Act," sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan. The measure has 225 co-sponsors, including a few Democrats, in the House of Representatives.

Opponents contend that the real motive behind the proposal, being pushed by the food industry, is to dilute California food-labeling regulations, which were approved by voters in a ballot initiative back in 1986 and are more stringent than federal rules. This is a reasonable and not unduly alarmist conclusion. In nearly every instance pitting consumer protection against industry interests over the past five years, the Bush Administration has sided with industry.

The labeling measure is particularly galling because Republicans traditionally have pushed the concept of states' rights and local control. But the American public has learned in many realms, from public education to the pricing of prescription drugs, that what really counts to the denizens of the White House and the GOP majority that dominates Capitol Hill is the flood of campaign money from friendly industries.

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