As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration works to meet deadlines and implement an ambitious new food safety law, the agency’s budget for the next fiscal year remains highly uncertain. The House recently approved a $285 million cut to FDA, $87 million of which would come from the agency’s food safety program. Now, food safety advocates are turning their focus to the Senate to make the case for a strong budget, or at the very least, no budget cuts.

The Senate has been slow to begin the appropriations process as Democrat and Republican leadership and the president work to strike a broad deficit-cutting deal as part of a plan to raise the debt ceiling, which the U.S. government is projected to be in danger of reaching August 2.

“No one had much insight into what the Senate will do next on appropriations, nor was their great optimism that any agency or program will do well,” says Steven Grossman, deputy executive director of Allliance for a Stronger FDA, referring to recent meetings with staff. The Alliance — a coalition of consumer and industry interests advocating for FDA funding — is stepping up lobbying efforts on agency’s behalf.

“We received positive feedback on the Alliance’s fundamental position: programs that are the necessities of a stable functional society must be funded regardless of the overall budget situation,” wrote Grossman, on the Alliance’s blog last week. “When Congress makes those judgments, FDA should (properly) be seen in the same company as national defense and air traffic controllers … rather than with other programs.”

But Grossman, and others in the food safety community, are not taking the steep cuts the House cleared lightly.

“The threat from the House position is still under-appreciated. Many offices did not understand that the House FY 12 position on FDA funding (a $285 million cut) is larger than the cut we faced in FY 11 in the House-passed HR 1 (a $242 million cut),” explains Grossman.

Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at FDA, has stressed on numerous occasions that the agency will need resources to enforce the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act signed by president Obama in January.

“While we build on a strong foundation and we have a base of resources that we can do a lot with, you can’t build a new house without new financing,” said Taylor at a recent meeting of food and drug officials in Plano, Texas. “You can’t pretend that all the new programs and systems that this law calls for can be achieved without new resources.”

The Alliance has been working to especially highlight FDA’s critical role in ensuring the safety of imported food. Among the group’s talking points is pointing out that a decade ago, 6 million shipments of FDA-regulated goods came in through U.S. ports, this year that number is 24 million shipments.

“Along with our points about safe foods and more/better medications, the safety/quality issues raised by imports captured attention, interest and sympathy,” adds Grossman.

A debt ceiling agreement between party leaders is expected to jump start the appropriations process in the Senate –i f leaders can agree on general domestic spending levels for the next few years, then Senate committees will have ballpark figures to work with for each appropriations bill.

Because the House agriculture appropriations bill, which covers FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has already been completed, it could be one of the earlier bills taken up by the Senate, but the timeline remains up in the air.