Though health care is the dominant issue in Congress, produce industry experts say overhauling the nation’s food safety rules may be final by early 2010.

But the real work, they said, will come when agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration begin the work of crafting actual regulation from the laws passed in Congress.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said even though the Senate has yet to pass its version of the bill, and both the House and Senate bills will need to go through conference committee, the final bill will likely mandate stricter food safety rules for companies, such as having written food safety plans and electronic record keeping so agencies like FDA can receive information on recalls and outbreaks within 48 hours.

“We want to see a level playing field on food safety and we want to see risk based on science,” Means said.

Other provisions likely to make the final cut are granting FDA authority to issue mandatory recalls — something the agency can’t do now — and faster supply chain traceback of items involved in a recall.

If the bill passes in 2010, Means said it will be several years before its provisions are fully implemented because federal agency rule making and crafting regulation is a complicated and lengthy process, but change will come to the produce industry eventually.

Companies taking part in the Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry effort to get full supply chain traceability from farm to retail stores by 2012, may be better positioned to meet the new requirements, Means said, because FDA has indicated that it likes PTI as a possible model for traceability.

“I think that improved data collection is clearly a priority for the Obama administration,” said Jim O’Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute.

FDA has committed to implementing food safety rules by the end of 2010, O’Hara said, and the legislation working its way through Congress addresses many of the food safety gaps the Clinton administration tried addressing.

In its recently published federal regulatory agenda, the FDA said it aims to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking about the regulation by October of 2010.

FDA said the proposed rule will be based on “prevention-oriented public health principles” and use what the FDA has learned in the past decade since issuing its 1998 good agricultural practices guide.

“Clearly, this is the reform the industry is looking towards, and in many ways the industry has gone far down along that road,” O’Hara said.

Hank Giclas, vice president for strategic planning, science and technology for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., said no matter when legislation is passed in Congress next year, FDA is already working on commodity-specific guidance and will likely start work on regulation next year.

“We’re interested in maximum government resources and that goes to emerging or renewed collaboration between FDA and USDA,” Giclas said.