Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The "Swallow At Your Own Risk Act"

The Hazard Communication Standard, which gives workers the “right to know” about the hazards of the chemicals they are exposed to, is arguably OSHA’s most important standard. It was issued during the Reagan administration, not because Reaganites thought workers should have information about the chemicals they were being exposed to, but because the agency was forced to issue the standard by the states.

Under court interpretations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, “federal” OSHA states (states where OSHA enforces the law) can issue their own workplace safety and health standards as long as federal OSHA has no standard in that area. In “state plan” states (where the state administers the law), states can issue their own standards as long as OSHA determines that they’re “at least as effective as” the federal law.

When the newly inaugurated Reagan administration withdrew a Carter administration proposal for a “Right-to-Know” standard, cities and then states began passing their own. Facing the potential of 50 different right to know laws, corporate America, which had strongly opposed a national standard, changed its mind, leading the the issuance of today’s Hazard Communication Standard (CFR 1910.1200).

California has been one of the leading states in requiring automobiles to meet more stringent standards than the federal government, single-handed driving industry innovation. States have been out front in a number of other areas, including food safety, at least until now, if the Republicans in Congress have their way.

Harold Meyerson tells the sad tale in today’s Washington Post:

Last week, even as Congress with great fanfare was protecting the American people against whatever mischief the harbor barons of Dubai were contemplating, it quietly decided to strip some long-standing protections from the same American people at the behest of our very own food industry. Last Wednesday the House passed the National Uniformity for Food Act, which might better be named the Swallow at Your Own Risk Act.

In one swoop, the bill preempts roughly 200 state laws governing food safety. The theory here is that we lack uniform national standards in such areas as lead and arsenic content, milk and shellfish safety, and the stuff that goes into food coloring and additives. National standards, the bill's champions argue, would be good for the whole country.

Funny thing, though. The bill doesn't set any national standards. It doesn't require that the Food and Drug Administration set such standards. It merely reserves to the FDA the right to set such standards, and negates a slew of laws that every single state has enacted over the past 60 years to make up for the FDA's neglect of food safety.

Examples? A Utah law addressing food additives that's stricter than federal law, a California law banning Mexican candy that contains lead, and numerous state laws addressing the hazards of raw shellfish.

The bill is, of course, being pushed by the food industry, and the Republican-controlled House of Corporate Representatives has – true to form – held no hearings and scheduled no debate – just a vote.
"What did Energy and Commerce base its decision on?" asks Henry Waxman, the Los Angeles Democrat who led the opposition to this mischief. "There was no analysis. There was no evaluation. Republicans just followed their leaders, and
some Democrats who had initially signed on as co-sponsors were waiting, presumably, for somebody authoritative to review the bill. But there was no review, and some of them couldn't figure out that they should have rethought their commitment."

The bill now goes to the Senate, where California's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have vowed to defeat it. But the message from the new, John Boehner-led reformed Republican House to American business couldn't be clearer: We're not going to let anything so vulgar as evidence, or our ostensible belief in states' rights, sway our judgment when the interests of our financial backers are at stake. Money still talks here; money screams.
Oh, and one more thing. 71 Democrats voted for the bill, “prima facie evidence,” Meyerson says, “that the Republicans deserve to lose control of Congress and that Democrats don't yet deserve to win it.”