What's in a Name?

Do you know what ASBC stands for? If you answered American Society of Brewing Chemists, you’re right. That organization appears in eight of the ten first-page Google search results for “ASBC.” The chemists, or the folks they hired to design their website, seem to be on top of search engine optimization. The other two organizations that show up are the American Sustainable Business Council (#5) and the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Virginia (#8).

Although I enjoy a good microbrew, I think I’ll skip the upcoming ASBC webinar on yeast cell counting. The American Sustainable Business Council was the target of my search. I’m a member—individual membership is free, so I encourage anyone who wants to keep up on issues ranging from regulating ingredients in consumer products to encouraging fair employment practices to join. Businesses that want to take a stand can apply for a paid membership.

The ASBC is devoted to promoting triple bottom line business practices, emphasizing the need to consider not only profit but people and planet when making business decisions. The advocacy arm advocates for policy change at both the federal and state levels. Yes, ASBC members get emails asking them to contact their senators and representatives to express support for certain bills or encourage voting against others.

The Accurate Labels Act is one of ASBC’s recent targets. The federal bill is sponsored by a group called the Coalition for Accurate Product Labels, which makes it sound like an organization promoting product safety. Don’t consumers want clear labels, so they can understand what’s in the products they buy? That’s the messaging that the bill’s sponsors are highlighting.

But that’s not the entire goal here. Instead, the act is designed to limit the ability of states to enact labeling requirements that go beyond national standards. Coalition members include a long list of associations representing wide-ranging industries: coatings and sealants, various food products, construction materials, and more. The coalition members have a vested interest in limiting or streamlining the labeling requirements for their products. They don’t want to deal with an array for varying requirements from different states and would like to avoid excessive labeling.

Committees from both houses are currently reviewing the Senate and House versions of the bills. The text of these bills is lengthy, and I haven’t taken the time to read it all. Some of the points the proponents are making sound reasonable, but they warrant a closer look. Giving extensive warnings on products for both serious health risks and remote ones confuses consumers and doesn’t necessarily help people choose the healthiest, safest, or least dangerous option.

The bills mention using the “best available science” to determine the appropriate level of warning on a product. That sounds good on the surface. Relying on peer-reviewed studies improves the chance that the research is impartial. But the bills provide a loophole in the case that such studies aren’t available. The “best available” research may be funded by the very companies that stand to make a profit selling products that would require warnings if states were empowered to create and enforce labeling laws.

I’m not convinced that warning consumers about every possible risk is the best approach, and I believe that proposed legislation at the state level should be subject to scrutiny. States are not necessarily acting solely in the best interests of public health either. Companies making environmentally friendly products have opposed the Accurate Labels Act. Their actions are not wrong, but they are not necessarily as altruistic as they may seem. Companies in the natural products sector benefit from legislation—whether at the federal or state level—that would require their competitors to post dire warnings on products or list all the ingredients they use.

But states should be able to act independently from federal regulations, especially in an environment in which the federal government is expanding the rights of corporations and industry associations at the expense of public health. Restricting the rights of state governments to create legislation aimed at providing information to consumers is not the answer.