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Tuna canners win Prop 65 case

- Fiona Robinson
June 01, 2006

A San Francisco Superior Court judge last month ruled that tuna canners don't have to label their product with mercury warnings under California's Proposition 65 law, which requires food manufacturers to warn consumers of products containing potentially hazardous ingredients.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer sued the three big tuna companies, Bumble Bee Foods, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea, in 2004, and the case went to trial in March. Judge Robert Dondero ruled in favor of the tuna canners on all three aspects of the case: that Food and Drug Administration laws preempt California's Prop 65 law, that the exposure of methylmercury in canned tuna is below the maximum allowable level, and that meth­ylmercury in tuna fits into the "naturally occurring" exception to Prop 65 since tuna canners cannot control the level of mercury in their products.

"Consumers are really the winners in this case," says Forrest Hainline of Goodwin Procter, attorney for the tuna canners.

"The judge has made a commonsense ruling based on nutrition and science. It's easy to see that canned tuna has always been an extremely healthy and important food source despite extremists' attempts to raise irrelevant and misleading arguments."

Food producers hope the tuna decision sets a precedent for Congress to pass the National Uniformity for Food Act, which would give federal regulators the power to decide what foods require warning labels for certain ingredients. The legislation continues in Congressional debate; representatives from the Food Products Association anticipate a vote in June.

"This is a good decision. There still is the need for the Uniformity for Food Act," says Tim Willard, VP of communications for the FPA in Washington, D.C.

"Instead of finding ways to discourage people from eating seafood, we should be busy finding ways to help everyone eat better," says David Burney, executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, which represents the big three tuna companies. Burney announced his retirement shortly after the tuna case was decided. Anne Forristall Luke was named president of the USTF.

Luke has spent many years in government relations and public affairs. For the past three years she was a principal at MGN, an independent federal government relations firm in Washington specializing in legislative and regulatory strategy.

- Fiona Robinson

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