Food safety has made it with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. The NCSL is the independent authority on the legislative bodies that govern America’s states and territories.

With funding assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts and NSF International, food safety has taken its place in the NCSL’s searchable Environmental Health Legislative Database.

Doug Farquhar of the NCSL, who oversaw the addition of food and food safety to the database, says state legislators introduced 756 measures related to food and food safety, covering a diverse range of topics including mobile vendors, labeling, and edible cannabis. Of the 756 total filed, state legislative bodies enacted 170 laws and adopted 18 resolutions.

The NCSL annual report “Food Safety Legislature for 2018” includes a summary of every enacted and adopted food safety bill and resolution. Farquhar identified some trends in the report.

He said safety of food donations was the predominant issue addressed, followed by food service in schools and restaurants. Several state legislative bodies looked at nutrition, either studying food deserts, tackling obesity, taxing sugary foods, or ensuring vulnerable communities had access to healthy foods.

“The variety of topic areas and the number of bills reflect states’ primacy when it comes to food safety,” Farquhar reports. “States have primary authority over food safety unless or until the federal government enacts laws or regulations that supersede state food safety laws.”

He says that authority allows lawmakers to determine food safety rules for food sold within their individual states. They also can determine when and where food is sold, the type (or lack thereof) of safety requirements for particular foods, and who may sell food. The NSCL finds state legislatures seeking to answer such questions as:

  • Can “non-hazardous” baked goods be sold without state oversight?
  • Can food be donated to food banks?
  • How should mobile food trucks be regulated?
  • What food products should be labeled?
  • Should food deserts be addressed?

Indeed,  the states regulate most of the critical concerns regarding food.

“The federal government does provide guidance on food safety through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Model Food Code,” Farquhar says. “The code, followed to some extent by every state, provides similarity among state codes and recommends safety precautions for food establishments in preparing, serving and selling food and beverages.

“But the states themselves must adopt and enforce the provisions of the food code; the federal government cannot mandate that states regulate food safety,” he says. “Food safety in this country, for the most part, is governed by the states.

Since 2014, state legislatures have introduced more than 23,500 bills related to food and food safety, enacting more than 600.

The State Bill Tracking Database at the NCSL website can be used to search for food safety and other environmental health concerns from 2009 to 2019. Legislation can be searched for each year since 2009 by state, topic, keyword, year, status or primary sponsor. Bill information for the current year is updated each Tuesday.

New measures are added as they are introduced or identified by NCSL staff.

The 45-year old NCSL is a bipartisan organization providing  comprehensive and unbiased research to both state legislators and staff. It works to improve the effectiveness of state legislatures, promote policy innovation and communication and ensure that state legislatures remain as a strong cohesive voice in the federal system.

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