Democrats quarrel over food safety legislation

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) should stop her “obstruction” and allow a food safety bill to reach the Senate floor, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said Monday.

Feinstein quickly shot back at Dingell in a letter obtained by The Hill.

She said she was not blocking the bill, and he should have approached her personally before attacking her in a public release.

“I am surprised that, as a longtime legislator, you released a public letter based on inaccurate information before reaching out to me personally,” she said in a letter to Dingell.

The intra-party warfare between the Dean of the House and the longtime California senator concerns legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to recall tainted food, quarantine geographic areas and access food producers’ records.

Dingell in a letter released Monday said Feinstein was putting his legislation at risk by trying to add a provision banning the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) from food and beverage containers.

“Time is running out,” wrote Dingell, who warned Feinstein’s actions could have “calamitous” consequences on the fate of the whole bill.

“Our choices are becoming increasingly clear, we can either find middle ground, or we can become obstinate in our views and fail to meet any of our goals,” he wrote.

Feinstein immediately replied to Dingell with a letter saying she does not have a hold on the bill and has not objected to it coming to the floor.

In her reply, the senator writes that Senate leadership has asked her to work with Senate Health Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) to strike a compromise on BPA; if that’s not possible, Feinstein writes, “I will be happy to offer an amendment on the floor.”

In high doses, BPA has been shown to affect brain development and human behavior, and government regulators are reviewing the levels at which it’s considered safe.

Lawmakers in California voted recently to ban BPA in containers for small children, but the chemical industry and major business groups that had supported the food safety bill now threaten to withdraw their support if BPA language is included.

Dingell says his food safety bill would “save the lives of thousands of Americans” and pointed out that every year, “76 million illnesses occur, more than 300,000 persons are hospitalized, and 5,000 die from foodborne illness.”

His bill, which is similar to the version Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced in the Senate, would make food producers more responsible for ensuring their products are safe and would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to recall tainted food, quarantine geographic areas and access food producers’ records.

In his letter to Feinstein, the chairman emeritus of the House Energy and Commerce Committee uses unusually sharp language for correspondence with a member of the same party, suggesting his frustration with the Senate might be boiling over.

Dingell, 84, has been waiting almost a year for the Senate to take up his bipartisan bill, which easily cleared the House 283-142 last July.

Dingell has already had to significantly water down his consumer safety bill to get it through the House. The bill originally covered pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices as well, but those provisions have been carved out into separate legislation that has not moved as far along as the food safety portion.

Earlier this year, Dingell made his frustration with the Senate clear after Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) broached the idea of tacking his drug reimportation amendment to the food bill. Dorgan in May told The Hill that he saw the food bill as his last, best chance to allow the importation of American-made drugs that are sold in countries such as Canada for much cheaper than they are in the U.S. 

“I wonder if he is trying to kill the bill,” Dingell said of Dorgan at the time. “He ought to belong to a body that knows how to legislate, or he ought to introduce his own bill and get it through the Senate and stay off this bill.”

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