Food safety in Nebraska is based on the ultimate public-private partnership. Both the taxpayers and fee-paying food businesses share the freight.   

At the non-partisan Nebraska Unicameral, the time has come to raise fees on food businesses to keep the costs of operating the state’s 14 regional inspection offices in balance. Nebraska also wants to avoid laying off any more food safety inspectors.

At both the state and federal levels, food businesses often lobby hard against regulatory fees.  The powerful American Meat Institute (AMI), for example, opposes fees whenever they are suggested at the federal level.   

In the Cornhusker State, however, the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association is not only lobbying for the fee bill, but getting Legislative Bill (LB) 771 adopted is the organization’s top priority.

In Nebraska’s short, 60-day session, legislation has to move fast or it likely won’t move at all.

But with a government affairs committee with members from every legislative district in the state, Nebraska’s grocery industry makes itself heard. It already got the Agriculture Committee to hold a public hearing on the bill on Tuesday.

“The Ag guys thought it went well,” says grocery industry lobbyist Kathy Siefken. “There were a few questions but nothing that had red flags on it.”

“As I said in my testimony — it’s all about food safety, and that is tough for anyone to agrue against,” she told Food Safety News. “I believe we have a very good chance of passage.  Regarding fees, we attempt to keep a 50/50 balance between industry and the general fund.  It is refreshing to work with a government regulatory agency that understands and works with industry.”

In delivering his “Introducer’s Statement of Intent,” prime sponsor Sen. Tom Carlson, NP-Holdrege, said: “Adjustment in the statutory maximum fee schedule is necessary to avoid transferring costs of the program to the general fund.”

Carlson said LB771 also adopts the 2009 Food Code. Nebraska is currently using the 2005 version.

Under Nebraska’s system, the Legislature adopts a schedule with maximum amounts that the state Department of Agriculture can impose for license and inspection fees.  If it does not periodically raise the ceiling on fees, the cost of food inspection shifts to the general fund.

But in recent years, the other option has been to cut the number of food safety inspectors.   Siefken, who is also executive director for the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, says that practice must stop.  

She has gone on state inspections, and says belt tightening is no long an option. She is willing to raise fees on her members to maintain food safety standards in Nebraska.

For the most part, those fee increases will be modest. Most food business would see their permit fee increase to $86 annually, up from $74. Annual inspection fees would rise to $43, up from $37. However, the bill would also impose double charges to businesses missing payment deadlines by more than 30 days.

The fiscal note for LB771 forecasts the new fee schedule will add almost $90,000 to the Nebraska’s Pure Food cash fund between now and 2014. Fees are due on Aug. 1 of each year.