- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2006


California importer Frank Lettieri is being sued for not warning his customers that his balsamic vinegar contains lead.

True enough, he says. But you would have to drink more than a pint of the vinegar every day to reach the government limit for safe exposure to lead. Most people sprinkle just a few drops onto salads or bread.

Regardless, a voter-passed law in California says consumers have a right to know about lead and other harmful chemicals. “The ironic part is, it will kill you in California, but it won’t kill you in Nevada,” Mr. Lettieri says. “It won’t kill you anywhere else in the country.”

Rather than wrestle with labeling laws that vary from state to state, the food industry wants Congress to prohibit states from requiring food warnings that are tougher than federal law. In March, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation that would pre-empt state warnings. The Senate held a hearing on the issue last month.

As many as 200 state laws or regulations could be affected, according to the Congressional Budget Office. They include warnings about lead and alcohol in candy, arsenic in bottled water, allergy-causing sulfites and mercury levels in fish.

Opposition is fierce, especially in California, where voters put their right-to-know law, known as Proposition 65, on the books 20 years ago.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said state warnings can fill critical gaps in federal law. Californians passed Proposition 65 “because they wanted to know if dangerous contaminants were in their food and drinking water,” Mrs. Boxer said at the Senate hearing.

“And they knew such a law would encourage food manufacturers to provide a safer product — because who wants to buy bottled water with an arsenic warning label?” she said.

The food industry insists the California law is being exploited by bounty-hunting trial lawyers. Small-business owner Bill Stadtlander makes Wheatena, a hot breakfast cereal that is so wholesome that the federal government agrees it is good for your heart and bones and may reduce the risk of certain cancers.

But a lawyer in California says Wheatena could kill you. Mr. Stadtlander is being sued because his cereal contains cancer-causing acrylamide, a chemical that forms naturally when starchy foods are baked or fried.

“I don’t put acrylamide in my product. All I do is toast my product,” said Mr. Stadtlander, whose company, Homestat Farms, is based in Dublin, Ohio. “If anybody has a stove or an oven, as soon as you start browning starches, you’re creating acrylamide.”

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