Since the House passed H.R. 2749, The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, late July, there has been a lot of uninformed discussion over what is in the bill–and how it differs from the one currently sitting in the Senate, which will likely be taken up for consideration this fall.

SB 510.jpgThe Senate bill with the most traction, S. 510, FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced last March, is currently sitting in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP).

Durbin is not a member of the HELP Committee and no hearings have been held on the bill, but Democrat leadership in the Senate has indicated that it will be a priority for the fall session, despite a busy schedule dominated by health care reform.

Though the House bill and Durbin’s bill are similar, some key differences could prove important when the two versions are reconciled during conference committee. According to Tony Corbo, the senior food lobbyist at Food and Water Watch, advocates are trying to get Senate legislation to look more like the house bill, so that there can be “rapid agreement” in the conference committee.

Of course, S. 510 will likely look very different once the HELP committee starts working on it, so it is difficult to say what conference reconciliation will look like.

As it stands now, the House-passed bill and the current Senate bill expand the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authority to access records and require food facilities to evaluate hazards and implement preventative controls and food safety plans. Both bills would increase the number of FDA inspections by setting mandatory inspection frequencies. Moreover, both would require FDA to issue science-based performance standards and produce safety standards.

Both bills grant FDA mandatory recall authority and give the agency the ability mandate certification for high-risk imported goods, allowing for penalties for firms not in compliance with standards.

The most significant difference between the two? The bill in the Senate does not share the House bill’s $500-per facility registration fee to help pay for the increased inspections and ramped up enforcement. Though Durbin’s does direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), the department that oversees the FDA, to collect fees for facility reinspections and recalls, similar to the House bill, but the fees will not drastically beef up the agency’s operating budget.

Unlike the House bill, Durbin’s bill does not require that category 1 (high risk) facilities report finished product results or that each facility has a food safety plan in place before introducing food into interstate commerce. It also does not give the FDA authority to quarantine a geographic area, nor does it require a national traceback system, or whistleblower protection for employees who draw attention to violations.