Preemption isn’t a dirty word

No state wants to cede authority to the federal government. But when it comes to key scientific policies that directly impact both interstate commerce and public health, Congress has the responsibility to intervene.  

As a scientist, I find the debate surrounding the safety of genetically modified foods extremely frustrating. After thousands of studies from around the globe, there is still no compelling scientific evidence the GMOs on the market have any adverse impact on our health or the environment. 

{mosads}Instead of debating the issue of GMO safety using science (which they’d lose), advocates of mandatory GMO labeling insist consumers have a “right to know” what’s in their food. But a “contains GMOs” label doesn’t actually tell consumers anything.

Studies show the nutritional content of GMOs and their conventional counterparts is virtually identical. Nor are GMO crops the only ones treated with pesticides—conventional crops are still grown using insecticides and herbicides. In fact, even organic farmers can use specific pesticides.  

These basic facts failed to stop Vermont (and other states) from passing laws requiring GMO labeling. But they should be enough to convince Congress to stop the proliferation of similar laws. 

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act strikes a sensible balance—states wouldn’t be able to pass myriad, competing laws requiring GMO labeling, but the federal government would develop a voluntary program to certify foods as GMO-free.  

For consumers who want more GMO-free choices than the organic options on the market, they would have them. And just like organic is regulated by the federal government, a GMO-free label would mean the same thing in Vermont as it does in California. Since few companies sell their products in just one state, that uniformity is crucial.  

In fact, we’ve already seen the problems created when a state creates its own labeling program. For 25 years, California’s Proposition 65 has created headaches for businesses and consumers alike. The law requires products containing even traces of one of more than 800 chemicals to come with a warning label.  

The law has allowed California’s regulators to directly contradict the scientific findings of federal agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as it’s done with the state’s rulings on mercury in fish and bisphenol-a. The scientific basis for many of California’s decisions is highly questionable, yet businesses failing to slap a label on their products can be sued by California attorneys to the tune of millions.  

This patchwork of chemical policies isn’t sustainable. As with GMOs, it’s time for the federal government to step up to the plate and take the lead on chemical regulation. Legislation to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is sponsored by more than half of the Senate. The bill (along with similar legislation already passed by the House) would strengthen the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to test chemicals for safety and ban those that pose health risks, without considering how expensive they’ll be for industry. It’s an extremely important (and long overdue) move towards ensuring more rigorous testing of the thousands of chemicals on the market.  

This reform legislation would also stop other states from passing laws like Proposition 65 (though Prop 65 itself would stay on the books). It also gives the authority to regulate high priority chemicals to the EPA, ensuring that more chemicals receive safety assessments and making it easier for businesses to work with regulators to create safe products for consumers in all 50 states.  

The federal government is far from a perfect arbiter of scientific data—the FDA and EPA have certainly made mistakes. But avoiding a confusing regulatory patchwork on important food and chemical safety issues is by far the best way to assure consumers the products on store shelves are safe to consume and use. 

Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education. CORE is supported by a variety of businesses and foundations, including those in the hospitality, agriculture and energy industries.


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