The California Labeling Law Is a Catch-22

Op-Ed: The Supreme Court shouldn’t meddle with California’s standards on meat and eggs.

In a post for The Nation, my colleague Bill Marler and I have argued that the Supreme Court should keep its distance from the so-called California standards, which we believe are too intrusive on our free-speech rights.

At issue is a California law that requires the labeling of meat and eggs as containing “added sugar,” or “sugar added” (or “sugar content”) to get federal stamps that will allow the food to be sold in schools without a permit. That’s a lot of additional oversight for what’s already required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations.

In addition, the USDA requires the labeling of foods that are prepared in a commercial kitchen. And of course, the Department of Defense prohibits the sale of meat and eggs prepared in a commercial kitchen.

The law is a simple matter of common sense: Since these foods and their preparation are food safety risks, it is reasonable that the federal government require that they have labels on them. The labels could say, for example, “Sugar added with meat, fat, or other constituents.”

The labeling law, however, is something of a Catch-22. If it prevents the sale of processed foods, it will be hard for restaurants to provide menus with the label. Yet it could prevent the healthiest restaurants in the country from operating in California.

In the name of protecting the public from foodborne illness, California has gone overboard in its efforts to compel restaurant operators—who are perfectly capable of providing safe food—to put on labels on processed meats and eggs cooked in commercial kitchens.

The effect of the label law will be to eliminate all but the most wholesome, low-risk restaurants, with the result that the state’s culinary reputation will be lost. The state can ill afford such a loss. It’s a shame that Californians don’t understand this. It’s a shame that California voters fail to understand this.

The law will lead to an increase in the sale of less wholesome food, most likely prepared in restaurants already in California, that is the result of increased competition and increased efficiency. The result will be an increase in the sale of unhealthful processed foods.

The state should not try to force the restaurants in the rest of California to adopt the label. The law sets up a situation so

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