The food safety bill that passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday is welcome news to food safety advocates and the food industry alike. Now, if they can just find the money to pay for it.

The House's version of the bill includes a fee on companies to at least partially fund the added inspections and other expenses expected to be created by the new legislation. But the Senate bill has no such fee, leaving funding almost completely up to a Congress increasingly hostile to new spending.

With time running short before Congress goes home, the Senate's food safety bill seems most likely to land on President Obama's desk for signing, food safety analysts say. "We could have a bill that's passed and not funded," said Michael Doyle, a food safety expert at the University of Georgia and supporter of the legislation.

The House passed the food safety bill in July 2009 and included an annual fee on companies covered by the legislation. That fee would have raised about $250 million over five years, about 18 percent of the $1.4 billion tab over five years for food safety enhancements.

The fee revenue would have been "substantial," said David Plunkett, staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food safety watchdog group and proponent of the legislation. The Senate bill has some minor fees -- such as for follow-up inspections by regulators -- but the revenue they would generate would be much smaller, he said.

While a conference committee between the Senate and House could hash out a compromise on fees and other issues, that's unlikely at this point, Plunkett said. There's not a enough time before Congress adjourns later this month to go the conference committee route, he said. "Our hope is that the House will take up the [Senate] bill and pass it."

The cost of food safety improvements is modest by Washington standards. But the mood in Washington, D.C., as evidenced by last month's election outcome, seems decidedly against almost any sort of spending.

Still, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., one of the bill's co-sponsors, said she thinks there will be some funding next year, though she doesn't know how much. "It's going to take a while to implement and everyone knows that."

The House bill had the support of the packaged food industry through its main trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association. That group includes several Minnesota-based food companies, including Cargill, General Mills, Hormel Foods and Schwan's.

"The industry response was really unprecedented," said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food safety. Consumer confidence in food safety has been sinking, and some of the worst recalls and outbreaks of illness stemmed from smaller, lesser-known firms. Many food producers "realized they are only as strong as their weakest links," Marler said.

A key component of the food safety legislation is an increase in inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency, which often lacks financial resources, has been criticized for often going five years between inspections.

That's been less of a worry in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture contracts with the FDA to do FDA inspections in this state.

High-risk establishments, which includes most packaged food producers, are inspected every 12 months, said Ben Miller, who leads the state agriculture department's rapid response team to food safety issues.

But Minnesota's inspection program is effectively paid for by fees assessed on companies that are inspected, with the fee based on the firm's size, he said.

The new food safety legislation has mandates that may require the state to raise fees or get FDA funding, Miller said.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003