Food safety legislation could be up for debate in Congress as early as this summer, according to produce industry lobbyists and other Capitol Hill sources.

“What I think we are seeing is that Congress is getting ready to load the food safety bill, and at some point, they are going to fire that gun,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., on April 20.

Lobbyists said the two food safety bills getting the most attention are the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act from Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. A similar bill, HR 875, is from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Though climate change apparently will take priority in Congress before Memorial Day (May 25), Guenther said food safety legislation will be spurred on by challenges highlighted in recent months.

From the peanut butter-linked salmonella outbreak to a traceability study from the U.S. Inspector General to the recent pistachio-linked salmonella outbreak, Guenther said headlines make a case for food safety reform.

“I think the major legislative proposals are on the table,” he said.

The bipartisan Durbin bill in the Senate will be the foundation for anything done in the Senate, he said, but the House has three proposals driving debate: the Dingell bill, the DeLauro bill and the Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act, from Reps. Jim Costa, D-Calif., and Adam Putnam, R-Fla.

 “They have enough evidence, enough need out there, to pass a food safety bill,” Guenther said.

“We’re still hearing that it is a priority,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

Guenther said the challenge for lawmakers is that climate change and energy policy will grab the spotlight before Memorial Day. After that, Guenther said the health care debate may heat up.

Means said some members of Congress would like to address food safety by the end of May, if possible.

Guenther said it’s unknown when food safety bills will be seriously considered.

 “I believe in the House that they are in the processes of getting their ducks in a row and having a food safety bill moved through at least the committee and maybe to the House floor by this fall,” he said.”

Guenther said the food safety legislation likely will include references to traceability, mandatory recall authority and preventive control standards for food facilities and provisions that will allow FDA to set standards for fresh produce. Guenther said he believes industry lobbyists are “on the same page.”

“My sense is that they are going to give the FDA authority to do a lot of this stuff and do it through regulation,” Guenther said. “They are not going to be overly prescriptive.”

For example, Guenther said the legislation might say standards should be set for commodities that are high risk in produce.

Another question is who will be responsible for increased inspections, whether that means third party inspectors, states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or FDA staff.

Details of how inspections will be done have to be worked out in law or in regulations, Guenther said.

“Paying for it is a big issue right now,” he said.

Means said food safety legislation will likely address traceability, but she said Congress will provide flexibility.

“As with anything, you want to see detail in regulation, not legislation,” Means said.

PMA believes that the FDA could play a role in certifying third party food safety inspectors, Means said.

“We can expect to hear folks talking about the need for speedier traceback, but hopefully not getting into too many specifics in the legislation itself,” she said.

Guenther said leaders of the House Agriculture Committee, led by Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., might want to play a more active role in food safety.

“What Chairman Peterson says repeatedly is the USDA is a better model for food safety,” he said.

However, he said the House Energy and Commerce has jurisdiction over food safety now and they will be very reluctant to give up that oversight role.