Delay of food safety bill stirs tensions between House and Senate Democrats

A rash of food recalls, from peanuts to eggs, led to several deaths and new calls for a comprehensive food-safety bill, but it has become stalled in Congress. The recalls have also led many food growers and processors to hire private inspectors to protect themselves from lawsuits, but experts say the inspections are rife with flaws and often do not make products safer.
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 3:37 PM

Frustration over a food safety bill that is stalled in the Senate has prompted infighting among some prominent Democrats.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) sent a sharply worded letter Friday to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), accusing her of holding up Senate action on a landmark food safety bill that easily passed the House on a bipartisan vote last July.

"This is the most awesomely frustrating thing I've ever undergone," Dingell said. "Seventy-six million people are sickened by bad food in this country every year, 300,000 go to the hospital and 5,000 die. And the Senate sits on this bill like a hen on an egg."

Dingell wrote the House bill, which would grant vast new authorities to the Food and Drug Administration and mark the first serious reform of food safety laws in 70 years. The measure was headed for easy passage in Senate until the spring, when Feinstein said she wanted to add language that would ban a controversial chemical, bisphenol A or BPA, from food packaging.

Feinstein's BPA proposal won applause from some public health groups but sparked immediate protest from the chemical industry, food manufacturers and major business interests, who pledged to withdraw their support for the bill if it included a ban on BPA.

BPA has been linked in animal studies to cancer, reproductive problems and other disorders. The chemical has been used in commercial products since the 1950s and is found in thousands of items from sunglasses to compact discs. But researchers are most concerned about BPA in food packaging because it is found to leach from the packaging into food and beverages. BPA has been detected in the urine of 93 percent of the U.S. population, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some scientists believe that BPA, a synthetic form of estrogen, could affect the endocrine system and disrupt child development.

After years of maintaining that BPA is safe, the FDA this year expressed "some concern" about the chemical and has joined several federal health agencies in a major research push to determine whether it poses human health risks.

Meanwhile, a handful of localities and states -- including Feinstein's state of California -- have banned BPA from bottles, sippy cups and other infant and toddler products.

In his letter to Feinstein, Dingell said he shared her concerns about possible BPA health effects but believes her insistence on a BPA ban was hurting the bill's chance for passage.

"I implore you to not allow the perfect be the enemy of the good," Dingell wrote. "Time is running out. 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. It would be calamitous if a bill to protect American consumers from unsafe food cannot become law this year because of controversy over a single point."

One food safety group, Safe Tables Our Priority, is urging its California members to ask Feinstein to drop her efforts around BPA in order to move the bill forward. "We are just really upset about this," said Donna Rosenbaum, the group's executive director. "We've been working so hard for so many years and we're so close."

Feinstein fired off a written reply to Dingell on Monday, saying that she was taken aback by his letter. She said she is not holding up the bill but is determined to either add a BPA ban or offer it as a separate amendment.

"I believe that we need legislation to protect consumers, especially babies and toddlers, from harmful chemicals," she wrote to Dingell. "BPA is a chemical widely used in the production of certain plastics and has been linked to negative health problems, including brain and behavioral disorders, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The Food Safety Bill is the logical place for this legislation, but special interests are fighting to obstruct any legislation to ban BPA from consumer products."

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