The Senate is expected to begin a series of votes on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S.510, this evening, a critical move forward for a bill that would be the most sweeping change in food safety laws in over seven decades. The legislation aims to increase inspection frequency, require food facilities to have food safety plans, give the agency mandatory recall authority, and hold imported food to the same standard as domestic.

As food policy guru Marion Nestle aptly put it, “Following the ongoing saga of S.510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is like taking a graduate course in political science.” After the House passed its version of the bill with bipartisan support in July 2009, the Senate version has hit quite a few speed bumps over the past year.

If all goes as expected today, there will be a cloture vote on the final bill, which, as of last week, includes an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) to exempt small farms and producers under certain circumstances. There will then be votes on four separate amendments.  Two address paperwork issues related to the health care bill, and two belong to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK): a controversial moratorium on legislative earmarks through 2013 and an alternate, scaled-back food safety bill. Coburn is not expected to have the 67 votes needed to move either of these items forward.

After the amendments are settled, the long-awaited food safety bill is expected to easily clear the 51-vote hurdle to pass the full Senate.  Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), a key lawmaker backing the bill, said earlier this month that the House has agreed to take up, and pass, the Senate version of the bill, which would send the measure to the president’s desk, but it remains to be seen whether that will come to fruition.

Yesterday, the New York Times featured an Op-Ed by authors, and sustainable food movement heroes, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, in favor of the bill, which they call “the best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply.”

Though all signs point to passage, opposition has grown louder in recent weeks, from the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and small farmers unconvinced that the Tester amendment will protect them from potentially burdensome regulations. The bill has also lost support from major produce industry groups, who previously actively supported the measure, after the small farm exemption was negotiated into the final package.

To watch the action in the Senate, tune into C-SPAN here – or watch CSPAN 2.  The first vote is tentatively scheduled to begin around 6:30 EST.