Amidst the ongoing health care reform circus and a busy legislative agenda, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) took time to hold a hearing on food safety reform yesterday.

The hearing is the first major action in the Senate on legislation to overhaul the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) role in the piecemeal federal food safety system that many blame for a string of high-profile nationwide foodborne illness outbreaks.

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The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510), which Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced last March, is expected to pass out of the HELP committee sometime soon, though there has been much speculation over whether the bill will make it out of the Senate and into conference before the holidays.

The hearing offered a chance for witnesses and Senators to go on the record regarding the legislation, which has bipartisan support and backing from the leading food industry and consumer advocacy groups. 

With a broad coalition behind the legislation, the measure is expected to pass the chamber after minor adjustments in markup. 

When exactly the Senate will make time in its schedule to consider the bill remains the million dollar question.

Throughout the hearing Senators emphasized that they wanted to pass a bill “soon,” but no specific timeline was given.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) closing line at the hearing offered the only real hint on possible timing. Harkin said he’d like to mark up the bill “soon” and “hopefully get it to the White House by the year’s end.”

Senator Harkin’s spokesman, Grant Gustafson, backtracked slightly when asked specifically about the timing of the bill. 

“Passing comprehensive food safety reform in a timely manner is a top priority for Chairman Harkin. While the exact timeline and Senate schedule are unclear, it is realistic that the HELP Committee could mark up food safety legislation this year,” said Gustafson.

The legislation requires the FDA to increase the frequency of inspection for food facilities, mandates that food firms have food safety plans in place, and gives the agency greater authority to initiate mandatory recalls. A similar bill passed the House in July with bipartisan support.

The most significant difference between the House and Senate versions is the mandated funding mechanism–the House version charges food companies $500 a year per facility to bolster the FDA’s budget.

The Senate bill does not contain such a provision and many food safety advocates worry that unless Congress adequately funds the agency, the FDA will have a tough time enforcing its legislative mandate.

“It is the case that our mandate and responsibilities have far outstripped our resources,” said Commissioner of Food and Drugs, Dr. Margaret Hamburg yesterday in her testimony before the HELP committee. “We are concerned the bill does not provide a guaranteed consistent funding source to help FDA fulfill its new responsibilities.”

Many experts expect that the House’s fee provision will survive conference if the Senate does not add a fee provision to help fund the bill, but it is an issue that will be watched very closely. 

Aside from the work that the committee must do to decide on certain details of the bill, it appears that all the pieces are in place to pass the legislation sometime soon.

Pictured Above: Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), testifies before the HELP committee on S.510, which he introduced last March. Commissioner Hamburg looks on as Durbin discusses the constituent Mary Ann Westerman’s battle with E. coli (pictured in prop).