AK officials worry about federal food safety law

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2006

Alaska officials said this week they are worried that a U.S. House of Representatives-approved bill could undermine the state's ability to regulate food safety.

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The House passed the National Uniformity for Food Act in a 283-139 vote Wednesday night, with Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska voting in favor. The bill was heavily supported by the U.S. food industry.

The bill prohibits states from adopting or enforcing their own food safety guidelines - such as warning notices or food safety labels for pesticides, heavy metals or food additives - unless they are identical to federal food safety regulations.

The bill, H.R. 4167, must now get approval from the Senate.

A week ago, Alaska Attorney General David Marquez joined 35 other state attorneys general in a forceful letter to Congress opposing the bill on the grounds that it "undercuts states' rights and consumer protection."

"We're not excited about any legislation that ties our hands, in terms of food labeling," said Mark Morones, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Law.

The national legislation also is raising a red flag at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

One issue for the DEC is whether it will still have the authority to remove contaminated food from Alaska food shelves or restaurants without a prior consultation with U.S. Food and Drug Administration. There is only one FDA inspector in Alaska, said Kristin Ryan, who leads the DEC's environmental health division.

The bill allow states to petition the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for exemptions to the new national uniformity standard.

In fact, the FDA could get more than 200 petitions from states attempting to preserve their own regulations, costing the federal agency roughly $100 million to process over the next five years, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.

State officials said Wednesday that they aren't sure if the law would affect any current Alaska food safety regulations.

The state has adopted two laws since 2004 requiring labels for farmed versus wild fish in restaurants and labels for genetically modified fish. But Alaska's seafood labeling laws don't appear to be directly affected by the House bill because they are not based on food safety.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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