Though we’re more than a month into fiscal year 2012, neither federal food safety agency knows what their budget will be this year. The Senate cleared an agriculture appropriations bill last week that is more generous to food safety programs than the bill the House cleared over the summer, but now lawmakers and their staff are wrangling to reconcile the two bills.

There’s a lot at stake for food safety. The Senate bill would give a $50 million boost to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is working to implement the ambitious Food Safety Modernization Act. The House bill would cut FDA’s budget by more than $280 million, an 11 percent reduction.

The Senate version would maintain meat inspection funding at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service at its current level. The House bill also seeks a $10 million, or 4 percent, cut from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service budget.

Last week congressional appropriators held their first conference committee since 2009 to hammer out the final language. (The committee is looking at agriculture along with transportation, justice, and housing because the Senate passed these bills as one package, known in Washington as a “minibus.”) Due to scheduling conflicts, the meeting only lasted ten minutes or so. Though the House is out of session this week, appropriations negotiations are continuing informally.

“I hope that it’s a real conference committee,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who chairs the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, told Roll Call this week. “I will say this, that the bicameral dialogue has been going on, and the bipartisan dialogue. Whether the committee gets into every single issue or not, we are having real negotiations.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether the final budget numbers will be closer to the Senate figures, or if House conservatives will insist on more aggressive spending cuts.

A spokeswoman from Sen. Herb Kohl’s office told Food Safety News no firm decisions had been made yet. “Senator Kohl is working hard to maintain the Senate position in conference, but negotiations are continuing.”

The Alliance for a Stronger FDA, a mix of industry and consumer groups that lobbies for FDA funding, said its members had done “about everything that can be done” to make the case for FDA.

“The case for increased FDA funding is strong,” said the group. “Not a day goes by that there isn’t another reminder — drug shortages, the pace of drug innovation, implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act –t hat the FDA’s responsibilities are growing.  There is a big gap between the proposed House and Senate funding levels for FDA for FY 12. We are confident that lawmakers will have the wisdom to provide the FDA with the highest funding level possible.”

“The Alliance believes that the conferees will see the wisdom of choosing the higher Senate level, with its $50 million increase for FDA,” wrote Stephen Grossman, the Alliance’s executive director, last week. “We hope our faith is justified.”