- - Monday, March 16, 2020

Few things are as ubiquitous as cleaning products. They disinfect our homes and workplaces and can kill COVID-19. If any products deserve to have a national disclosure standard for their ingredients, these are it. Unfortunately, the federal government has no such standard and states are gradually filling that void. That’s a potential problem both for consumers and the companies that make these important staples.

Luckily, the nation’s leading, consensus standard was hammered out in California in 2017. Cleaning products sold in California are now required to list ingredients on their labels and provide additional ingredient information on websites. The law was carefully crafted during months of negotiations between consumer groups and manufacturers.

More than 100 organizations and corporations supported the compromise. ranging from breast cancer prevention and clean water advocates to janitor and domestic worker unions, and some of the world’s largest cleaning product companies.

Congress would be wise to build on this good work and create a national standard modeled on the California law aptly named the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act. Its guiding principle: Clear and consistent communication of ingredients helps consumers make good decisions.

Praise was heaped on the law by historically harsh critics. The Natural Resources Defense Council said the law “strikes a careful balance between the right of consumers to know what’s in the products they bring into their homes and companies’ interests in protecting certain information as confidential.” The Environmental Working Group added that the law “will help protect the health of consumers and workers yet be workable for business.” Women’s Voices for the Earth called the law “groundbreaking.”

When California speaks, many states listen. The reason is simple: California is so large that consumer regulations there almost inevitably are adopted by producers and retailers across the country. It’s simply impractical for them to conform their practices to California alone and to follow other rules elsewhere. A California standard, in other words, often becomes the de facto national standard because of economics.

In this case, though, the perfect is threatening to become the enemy of the excellent. New York State regulators have put the public on notice that they are interested in devising far more detailed disclosure rules than California has imposed. These plans are unworkable. They would require information so granular that companies couldn’t produce it, nor could consumers use it to help them make product choices.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued guidance in 2018 that diverged significantly from California’s rules. Industry organizations attempted to negotiate with New York in the same way they did in California but were rebuffed. The American Cleaning Institute and the Household & Commercial Products Association sued to block the effort. Last September, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of the groups, saying that regulators had violated the state’s administrative procedures act.

But again in 2020 New York regulators are moving forward with a proposal almost identical to the original. Some groups that embraced the California law are waiting to see what happens in New York before engaging on a national standard that would create an even playing field for companies across the country.

That is a mistake. The New York regulators’ proposal would be best informed if they follow the California model of collaboration with industry. For example, the proposed program in New York would require cleaning product makers to disclose levels of certain ingredients that are smaller than the amounts that the federal government permits in drinking water. In addition, manufacturers simply cannot measure amounts of those ingredients as minute as the New York program would require.

Walmart, the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer, has voluntarily agreed to accept California’s law because it meets Walmart’s own disclosure requirements for the cleaning products it sells. If a federal standard incorporated the California model for ingredient disclosure, manufacturers would save millions in packaging costs because they would have one, rather than multiple mandates to follow. Equally important, consumers would benefit from those savings along with the clear, consistent information they would be getting.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, California Democrat, a physician and widely recognized champion for public health, has tried to make progress on this issue while others have waited. Congress should follow his lead. The policy split between California and New York threatens to hurt consumers and businesses. Lawmakers should approve a federal standard based on California’s widely praised law and soon.

• Steve Caldeira is president and CEO of the Household & Commercial Products Association. Melissa Hockstad is president and CEO of the American Cleaning Institute. 

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