Confusion about what a bill preempting local food rules actually would do was widespread when the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee heard about it Wednesday.
Proponents say House Bill 2595 would protect food businesses from excessive regulations, while opponents argue it could restrict their ability to offer incentives for grocery stores and farmers markets.
It is clear that the bill would forbid cities or counties in Kansas from requiring restaurants or other food service operations to display certain information about food. The bill would include nutritional information, such as calories and fat content, and information about allergens contained in food or beverages. Alcoholic beverages aren’t covered.
The bill also would forbid cities from restricting the sale or distribution of food and nonalcoholic beverages approved for sale in the United States, and forbid them from restricting the growing or raising of food crops or livestock.
Larry Baer, general counsel for the League of Kansas Municipalities, said he didn’t know of any cities in Kansas that had food labeling requirements. But he told legislators he is concerned the bill could invalidate zoning rules that restrict keeping livestock without city limits.
“Cities currently have zoning provisions, land use regulations and other things that preclude or at least limit the ability to raise livestock in the city,” he said.
Sean Gatewood, who represents the Kansas Farmers Union, said its members are concerned the bill could throw out local regulations requiring a vote before a large livestock operation could open.
“Think of how you would feel if the federal government said we can’t have a patchwork of 50 different states with different laws.”- Mike Taylor, public relations director for the unified government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.
The bill also wouldn’t allow local governments to consider “food-based health disparities” in licensing decisions. Los Angeles banned new fast food restaurants from opening in a part of the city with a particularly high obesity rate, but the practice hasn’t taken off in other cities.
Studies have found the Los Angeles ban wasn’t effective in curbing the growth in the obesity rate, though some noted that it only affected new freestanding restaurants, leaving existing locations intact and not addressing new restaurants in strip malls.
Paul Johnson, who represents the Kansas Rural Center, said he is concerned the bill could prevent local governments or food policy councils from offering incentives specific to grocery stores, farmers markets and other places that sell healthy foods.
“We’re wondering whether there would be barriers with the passage of this bill,” he said.
Jason Watkins, who represents the Kansas Restaurant Association, said opponents had overstated the bill’s restrictions.
“Nothing in this bill says that a nonprofit can’t do education about lifestyle choices with their members,” he said.
None of those who testified could name any Kansas municipalities that have tried to enact nutrition regulations. New York City has required restaurants to mark items that contain more than the daily recommended limit for sodium, which is 2,300 milligrams. The city also attempted to ban the sale of large sugary drinks, but a court threw out that rule.
Cities and counties also couldn’t create rules related to “consumer incentive items,” such as toys in children’s meals or points cards for adults, and couldn’t restrict the sale of certain foods based on their nutritional content. The bill covers school districts, so efforts to force high school vending machines to include lower-calorie options might run afoul of its provisions.
Christianne Miles, of Treat America Foodservice, which provides vending machine services, said having statewide standards would mean vendors wouldn’t have to keep track of which products could be sold in which cities.
If local governments could add labeling requirements, she said, “vending operators would need to warehouse and transport more product with different labels. … This would decrease efficiency and add to product cost.”
Much of the bill appears to be copied verbatim from a model bill created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-leaning nonprofit group. The provisions preempting rules on farms and livestock weren’t part of the ALEC bill, however.
Mike Taylor, public relations director for the unified government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., said the county has no intention of regulating nutrition information but dislikes infringement on local control. He described the bill and other legislation from ALEC as “monolithic, top-down, centralized, ‘Big Brother’ laws.”
“Think of how you would feel if the federal government said we can’t have a patchwork of 50 different states with different laws,” he said.