Dingell criticizes ‘slow to act’ Senate on taking up food safety bill

The dean of the House is calling out the Senate for not making food safety legislation a top priority.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest serving member of the House and author of the lower chamber’s food safety bill, told The Hill that the Senate “has been slow to act.”

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He said the upper chamber should take up the bipartisan bill that passed the House, pointing out that he’s talked with many of his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle about his measure.

“Unfortunately, even with bipartisan support, the Senate has been slow to act…We need the Senate to act as soon as possible so that we can get a bill to the president’s desk that will give the Food and Drug Administration the authorities and resources to address this real threat.”

Senate aides say the debate on health reform and jobs have temporarily shelved food safety, but they are vowing to tackle the matter later this year.

Dingell, who has been working on healthcare reform throughout his career, clearly believes the Senate should have moved food safety legislation by now. Dingell this week announced he will seek a 28th term.

Last summer, Vice President Joe Biden said there are “few responsibilities more basic or more important for the government than making sure the food our families eat is safe.”

Nearly eight months later, food safety legislation that comfortably passed the House and a companion bill that was approved unanimously last fall by a Senate committee are stuck in neutral.

The Senate legislation sponsored by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), which would prompt more regular processing plant inspections and greater government authority in food-recall cases, is awaiting action floor.

“A lot of bills were put aside in favor of the healthcare bill,” said a senior Democratic aide. “It remains a priority for a number of senators, and we hope that we can turn to it in the spring.”

Dingell’s bill passed the House last July on a 283-142 vote. He hailed it as “a monumental piece of bipartisan legislation that will grant FDA the authorities and resources needed to effectively oversee an increasingly global food marketplace.”

The former Energy and Commerce Committee chairman said the bill is imperative given the outbreaks of melamine, E. coli and salmonella in recent years.

"The problems with our nation's food supply won't just go away,” Dingell said Friday.

The Senate bill passed through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Nov. 18, 2009, on a 16-0 vote.

“There was not a single ‘no’ vote, and all the momentum was all there,” said an aide to HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who ushered the bill through the panel.

“But healthcare has just sucked all the air out of the room. It’s ultimately up to [Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] to decide what to do with it, but it’s certainly a top priority of Sen. Harkin.”

The Senate bill is less controversial than the House. Some of the more contentious issues, such as imposing fees on food facilities to help finance FDA's food safety inspection efforts, were not included in the HELP-passed measure.

Pew Charitable Trusts has been assisting with a coordinated lobbying effort to press Senate leaders to bring the bill to the floor. Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food safety campaign, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that a vote can occur in the first half of March, before the Senate’s next recess week starts on March 29.

Part of the problem, Eskin said, is that the committee staffers who work on food safety are now working on healthcare reform.

“We’re a little frustrated because we’d like to pick up on the momentum of the committee vote and ride it towards passage,” Eskin said. “Our understanding is that it’s just prioritization.”

Regan LaChapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid, said the majority leader hopes to bring the bill to the floor either during the current work period or the next, which runs from April 12 to May 28.

“It’s on our list of legislative priorities,” she said. “It could be in March or the next work period. Obviously we have many issues to address.”

Among other provisions, the legislation would do the following:

• Attempt to prevent food-borne illnesses from reaching the population by requiring food-processing plants to upgrade the frequency and thoroughness of their safety inspections;

• Require the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department and Agriculture Department to jointly develop a national plan to improve food safety, as well as an HHS requirement for a national system to better prevent possible problems in the food supply;

• Grant HHS greater authority to order recalls of suspected tainted food;

• Improve inspections of foreign food imported into the U.S.

House Republicans were split on the bill, with 54 supporting it and 122 opposed. GOP members who backed it include Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Joe Barton (Texas), Dave Camp (Mich.) and Greg Walden (Ore.).

After the House bill passed, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) told The Washington Post: "The federal government will tell our farmers and ranchers how to do something they've been doing since the dawn of mankind. It goes too far in the direction of trying to produce food from a bureaucrat's chair in Washington, D.C."

Twenty House Democrats opposed the bill.