The government is too strapped to handle congressional legislation that would strip state-ordered warnings from food labels, a former Food and Drug Administration official said Thursday.

The food industry wants Congress to prevent states from adding food warnings that go beyond federal law, affecting laws about milk safety in Massachusetts, Michigan and Nebraska and warnings about allergy-causing sulfites in Connecticut, Michigan and Virginia.

States would be allowed to petition the FDA to keep the warnings. But the agency is plagued by backlogs and staffing shortages, said William Hubbard, a former associate commissioner who retired last year.

FDA “will fail massively in implementing a bill like this, or they will be forced to tell you, ‘No, they can’t do it,'” Hubbard said during a Senate hearing on the bill.

The bill won House approval in March on a 283-139 vote. The food industry’s primary target is California’s voter-passed Proposition 65, which requires warnings about cancer-causing chemicals or reproductive toxins in food, such as mercury in canned tuna or lead in Mexican candy.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the bill “a major assault” on the law.

“Consumers deserve to know if the product they are purchasing may cause them harm,” Feinstein said.

She and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also testified at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., pointed out there are uniform standards for nutrition labels, allergen labels and drug labels, but not for food warnings.

“Can a loaf of bread be more dangerous in California than the same loaf is in Wyoming, or in Massachusetts?” Enzi said.

The bill’s supporters say the California law is being exploited by bounty-hunting trial lawyers. The law has generated $38 million in attorney fees over the past 6 years, according to food industry estimates.

For example, an Ohio cereal company owner is being sued because his toasted wheat hot cereal, Wheatena, contains naturally occurring acrylamide. Acrylamide is linked to cancer and forms in starchy food cooked at high temperatures, such as french fries and potato chips.

At the same time, FDA has found that Wheatena may also reduce the risk of cancer.

“Are you confused? I am,” said Bill Stadtlander, owner of Homestat Farm, which makes the cereal. “And consumers are sure to be confused if federal guidelines say a product may reduce the risk of certain cancers, followed by a California warning that it may cause cancer.”

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has sued to force Burger King, Frito Lay, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other companies to warn consumers that acrylamide is present.


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