By Laura Coleman-Lochner, Bloomberg

new bill in Congress is raising the hackles of consumer advocates who say it’ll give Americans less information about the ingredients in products they buy.

Dubbed the Accurate Labels Act, the bill backed by groups that represent companies such as Kellogg Co. and Dow Chemical Co. seeks to establish federal standards for labeling. While industry representatives who support the measure argue it will simplify ingredient lists, health and environmental groups say it’s a dangerous effort to defang state laws that inform and protect shoppers.

The initiative could be viewed as a compromise between consumer advocates who want “full transparency” of product ingredients and the companies that bear the cost of “an ever-growing list of requirements,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Ken Shea. Still, “a one-size-fits all label would weaken consumer protections in those states in which greater disclosure is sought.”

The struggle is part of a deepening fault line in the U.S. over how to use and define science, especially as some industry giants say too much information could confuse, not help, the average consumer.

Bill’s Contents

Consumers have been clamoring for more details about what’s in their food and household and personal-care products, from yoga mats to shampoo, driving more than half of U.S. states to pass measures to force companies to disclose — or eliminate — some substances of concern found in commonly used goods. Some retailers have even taken the matter into their own hands, moving to require disclosure or removal of some ingredients.

“People want to know what’s in the products they buy,” said Ansje Miller, director of policy and partnerships at the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals. “Many of these state laws have a long track record of working very well to protect people from dangerous chemicals in thousands of products across the country. If you care about your constituents’ health, you’re not going to sign on to this.”

But bill supporters say the state laws create a patchwork of labeling legislation, leaving consumers unsure of risk levels or even scared of “harms that do not exist,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who co-sponsored the House version, said in a statement. Current labeling “desensitizes the public from heeding serious warnings on health risks, and imposes unnecessary and costly regulatory burdens for producers.”

The federal initiative, which is supported by dozens of trade groups including the National Retail Federation, seeks to simplify and standardize the way retailers label their products, including allowing them to leave “trace” substances off labels and letting companies move ingredient lists online in lieu of the on-package disclosure mandated by some states.

States’ Rights

The bill would amend the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, a 1967 measure administered by the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration that governs consumer products.

If state or local governments want to enact stricter rules — like California’s Prop 65 that warns consumers if a product contains chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm — they’d have to prove why they’re needed. States would be required to use “science-based criteria” in developing their own disclosure laws and the “best available science and the weight of the evidence” in evaluating whether substances are harmful, the text of the bill says.

If states “want to add labeling requirements or warnings, they can do so,” said Claire Buchanan Parker, a spokeswoman for the newly-formed Coalition for Accurate Product Labels. “But they need to show their work and demonstrate there is sound science behind it.”

That alarms opponents, who argue the evaluation methods wouldn’t take into account the quality of scientific studies and would allow policy makers to exclude newer research on the harmful effects of some substances.

Bill Status

The Senate version of the bill introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, has no Democratic co-sponsors, while the House version has co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle.

Both measures were introduced earlier this month and haven’t been scheduled yet for committee hearings or put on the House and Senate calendars for a vote.

If the bill were passed, David Levine, chief executive officer of the American Sustainable Business Council, predicts it would trigger a flood of lawsuits challenging the state rules — which would ultimately hurt the consumer, he said.

“With the undermining of regulations on all fronts, we have moved ahead” to pass state laws like California’s new cleaning products disclosure bill, he said. “If we can’t regulate the chemicals out of the marketplace at the moment, let’s let consumers know what’s in it. If you’ve got safer products, then you shouldn’t be afraid of transparency.”