No more labels on fruit sprayed after harvest. No more health warnings for people who eat smoked alewives. No more laws on the safety of milk.

If a new federal bill passes the U.S. Senate, some state officials say, food safety in Maine will take a turn for the worse.

“It sets a very low, industry-friendly standard,” said Dora Mills, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control.

At issue is the National Uniformity for Food Act, a bill that passed the House earlier this year and is now in the Senate.

Backers say it will standardize food labels by forcing states to drop their own guidelines in favor of federal regulations. Opponents say state guidelines are almost always stricter than federal requirements, and the bill would make food less safe.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd District, was one of 226 co-sponsors of the bill. He voted for it last March.

But many Maine officials are against it: U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, the Maine Attorney General’s Office, the Maine Department of Agriculture and the Maine Center for Disease Control.

“We think states have the power to adopt laws that affect the health, safety and welfare of its people,” said Chuck Dow, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office.

More than 200 state food safety and labeling laws would be canceled if the bill became law, according to a report by the National Resources Defense Council and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a controversial group that warned consumers about movie theater popcorn and fast food. Opponents say Maine would lose a handful of laws, including those that require sellers to tell buyers when fresh produce has been treated after harvest, that require signs warning of the health risks of eating smoked alewives, that govern the safety of milk and that govern the safety of food in restaurants.

Opponents also say the law would take away a crucial state right and would upset the balance each state maintains between local delicacies and food safety.

In other states, for example, whole smoked alewives are outlawed because they can pose a health risk, Mills said. Maine allows them – with a warning – because they are a traditional Down East food.

“In each state it’s a balancing act,” Mills said.

Backers of the bill say it will make food labeling laws uniform without hurting safety. They say it will help farmers and small food producers who want to sell their food out of state because they won’t have to create different labels.

“I believe in a consumer’s right to know and this bill does not undermine that right,” said Michaud in a statement.

If a state food law is that critical, he said, state officials can petition the FDA for an exemption that will allow the law to stay.

Opponents, though, say exemptions aren’t guaranteed. And if every state petitioned the FDA to keep its laws, the National Resources Defense Council and the Center for Science in the Public Interest said, it will cost the federal government $100 million.

The bill passed the house in March and has had a hearing in the Senate. Experts say it could come up for vote when the Senate returns to session later this year.

Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins said they have not made a decision about the bill.


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