Consumers have long pushed for enhanced disclosure of the ingredients in their food and their personal care and cleaning products.
They expect product labels to look the same from state to state. Fortunately, that’s pretty much the case. While there isn’t a national standard for disclosing ingredient information, most manufacturers use the model established by California in its widely hailed Cleaning Product Right to Know Act. Many retailers have adopted California’s standard for disclosure—not just in California but nationwide.
The California law, enacted in 2017, requires makers of cleansers and disinfectants to identify intentionally added ingredients and certain contaminants above specified levels. It represented a true consensus among diverse interests. It was supported by more than 100 organizations ranging from clean-water and breast-cancer advocates to some of the world’s largest cleaning and disinfectant product companies, many of which are members of the Household & Commercial Products Association.
The statute was also well-timed. It was implemented before the outbreak of COVID-19, which compelled millions of Americans to begin reading product labels more closely than ever. At the pandemic’s start, the Environmental Protection Agency added to the wealth of useful information by publishing its List N, which identifies disinfectant products that can kill the virus on surfaces.
Since there isn’t a federal statute dictating ingredient disclosure, states can create their own requirements, which unfortunately is exactly what New York State is doing. It is expected to propose regulations, which, like California’s law, require the disclosure of ingredients. But it also plans to require disclosure of a broader list of contaminants that are not present in most products and are below levels that can be accurately measured. This new standard is neither useful nor practical but can alarm consumers for no good reason.
New York’s expected contaminant disclosure regimen would apply to products at any point in the supply chain, including in raw materials. And that won’t be easy to do. Natural products, which are in high demand, are often plant-based and are grown out-of-doors, where tiny, inconsequential amounts of contaminants could be present. The absurd result: New York’s approach to contaminants will require more information about household cleaning products than about the state’s drinking water.
California, on the other hand, was more practical about its disclosure requirements. Only ingredients that are measurable, likely to be present, or potentially problematic are mandated for disclosure. In other words, California sticks to what consumers need to know and ignores data that’s confusing or unimportant.
If New York goes ahead with its regulations, the nation will have two competing standards. That’s not good for anyone. Prices will rise because manufacturers and retailers will have to design and print packages with two different ingredient labels depending on where they are sold. And consumers won’t have the assurance of a single set of reliable facts about products they utilize every day. They won’t know what’s vital and what they can ignore.
The federal government must intervene to prevent labels that look different from state to state and protect consumers from an inevitable patchwork of disclosure requirements.
The makers of cleansers and disinfectants believe that ingredient communication is important and that consistent and transparent information can help consumers make informed decisions and feel confident about the products they use. The federal government can only establish this consistency across state lines. It is time for Congress to approve a national standard for disclosing the ingredients in these essential products using the proven California statute as the model.
• Steve Caldeira is the president and CEO of the Household & Commercial Products Association.