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Don’t let the farm bill overrule state food laws

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This week, a truly terrible Farm Bill will come to the floor of the House for a vote. It is full of mean-spirited cuts to hunger programs, and ill-conceived “reforms” that would convert conservation funding into subsidies for confined animal feeding operation, or “CAFOs.” But the provision that best encapsulates this legislation’s nefarious character is the so-called “Protect Interstate Commerce Act,” also known as the “King Amendment.”

This proposed legislation is not new. In the run-up to the 2014 farm bill, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) slipped a similar provision into the House bill. The amendment ostensibly aims to overturn a California animal welfare law that bans the sale of certain eggs. In doing so, it would force California and other states to allow sales of eggs produced by large companies located in King’s district — companies like Rose Acre Farms, Hillandale Farms, and Rembrandt Foods. But the bill would also require California, and other states, to allow a lot, lot more.

{mosads}Specifically, King’s amendment would force states to authorize the sale of “any agricultural product” not prohibited under federal law. If any one state tolerates the production or manufacture of a particular agricultural product, under the King amendment the other 49 must do so as well.


The provision is essentially designed to trigger a race to the bottom, and by eliminating states’ historic police powers within their borders, it runs roughshod over the 10th Amendment’s guarantee that the states’ sovereign rights cannot be abridged by Congress. In other words, the King amendment would upend the constitutional balance between state and federal government. 

This could mean wiping out state laws aimed at protecting food safety, animal welfare, the environment and more. While King has sold his legislation as a defense against the “California vegan” lobby and state animal welfare legislation, the provision’s expansive language could operate to preempt state laws covering everything from child labor to dangerous pesticides to labeling of farm-raised fish to alcohol and tobacco products. 

A recent Harvard Law School report highlights the far-reaching potential impacts of the legislation on citizens, states, and businesses across the nation. The bill creates a private right of action for anyone “affected by a regulation,” promising a torrent of litigation, and the task of interpreting the vaguely worded Amendment would likely drag on for years, creating uncertainty that would stifle business growth.

In 2014, the sweeping implications of the King amendment attracted widespread opposition. The National Conference of State Legislatures pointed out that the law would overrule Iowa state regulations requiring the labeling of artificial sweeteners, as well as myriad other state laws aimed at “protecting the health and safety of consumers and the viability of our precious farmland and forests.”

The Fraternal Order of Police registered its opposition, explaining that states should be able to have their own anti-cruelty laws. Consumer groups pointed out that food safety laws, such as California’s ban on oysters contaminated with the pathogen vibrio vulnificus, would be overruled by laxer laws in states like Louisiana.

This time around, an even larger set of 185 organizations ranging from the conservative FreedomWorks to the United Farm Workers has voiced opposition to King’s legislation, and the stakes are even higher.

For example, San Francisco recently passed an antibiotics reporting ordinance that requires large chain stores to file annual paperwork with the city for each of their meat suppliers. Producers of meat sold in the city will soon have to disclose which antibiotics are used on the animals in their products, how much, and how often. If a producer refuses to provide information, then the stores either have to stop selling those products, or they get fined.

But under the King amendment, the law’s recordkeeping requirement would be an impermissible “standard or condition.” Never mind that the city’s elected representatives passed the law unanimously.

The farm bill is complicated, and reasonable minds disagree on many of the food policy issues bound up in the legislation. But the King amendment should be seen as nothing short of an assault on democracy. The country is better off with no farm bill at all than one that includes this ill-conceived legislation.

Thomas Gremillion is director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

Tags Agriculture farm bill Food safety food supply Steve King Thomas Gremillion

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