Warning: Alerts waning
In California’s battle over product labels, industry has upper hand
Nail polish and hair dye. Cleaning products. Plants and flowers for the garden.
California lawmakers have been considering new labels for them, triggering an annual conflict in the state Capitol over how much to tell people about what they buy at the store or use at work.
The bills reflect a recurring tension in the statehouse: Environmentalists and consumer advocates argue that people have a right to know what’s in everyday products, while industry lobbyists say putting too much information on a label could harm sales by creating unfounded fear. In most cases, industry wins.
Already this year, the Democratic-controlled Legislature sidelined a bill (SB 300) to label soda and other sugary drinks with warnings that they contribute to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay—a proposal lawmakers have rejected for the last few years. They also killed a different bill (SB 504) that would have added warning labels to foods containing synthetic dyes. In past years, lawmakers rejected bills to label genetically engineered foods and require ingredients to be listed on the labels of cleaning products.
“You’re fighting the manufacturers, the retailers, the chemistry industry and a long list of business groups who are probably irrelevant with the general public but are highly relevant within the Capitol,” said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, which supports more information on labels. “It’s almost always an uphill battle.”
Business groups that oppose such bills work to influence the process in ways big and small. They donate to political campaigns, hire well-connected lobbyists and provide goodies to lawmakers and their staffs.
The business groups also make persuasive arguments about the downsides of slapping products with new labels: The supply chain becomes complicated if one state requires labels different from others, label requirements create the potential for new lawsuits and consumers could become confused by label information without much context.
“If you say there’s a chemical in something, the connotation is that it’s bad, when in reality chemicals serve a number of valuable purposes,” said Michael Shaw, a lobbyist for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.
“It creates concerns about the product that aren’t necessarily legitimate concerns.”
The possibility that new labels could change what people buy is exactly why these bills remain a perpetual battle in Sacramento.
Senate Bill 258 would require that cleaning products carry labels listing all ingredients and a pictogram illustrating their potential health effects. Environmentalists, health advocates and a union representing janitors support the bill, arguing that it would allow people to avoid products that may cause them harm.
“I have seen firsthand how chemicals have impacted my co-workers through breathing problems or exposure to the skin,” janitor Marvin Mugallo testified at a hearing in March.
The chemical industry, as well as groups representing manufacturers and retailers, are fighting the bill. They say disclosing ingredients could give away trade secrets and listing potentially hundreds of chemicals on a label is impractical for companies and unhelpful to consumers.
“Just because a product might contain a certain chemical, it would be inappropriate to send a message that that product may somehow be harmful to human health and the environment,” said Tim Shestek, a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council.
Lawmakers killed a similar proposal last year.
Beauty products sold at the retail level already must list their ingredients. Assembly Bill 1575 would put a similar requirement on cosmetics used in beauty salons. The bill is supported by many groups that advocate for women’s health; their position is that hair stylists and nail salon workers are exposed to harsh chemicals on the job.
“At work, I often experience headaches and skin rashes that I believe may be related to the products I used. Many of my co-workers experience similar symptoms,” nail salon worker Kathy Pham testified.
The Personal Care Products Council opposes the bill, saying it already lists cosmetic ingredients on information sheets that salons are required to make available to their employees.
“Our companies often provide [this] information in multiple languages,” said Thomas Myers, a lawyer for the group.
Advocates who want to stem the ongoing decline in the population of bees proposed SB 602. Nursery shoppers would have seen a label that said, “State of California Safety Warning: May harm bees,” on plants and seed packets treated with a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
Those chemicals have been found in tomato plants, salvias and daisies, and remain in the plant long after the initial application, said Paul Towers, organizing director of the Pesticide Action Network, which supported the measure. Numerous agricultural groups and gardening stores opposed the bill, which was shelved.