If Iowa agriculture had the choice, would it prefer that its most powerful Senator, Tom Harkin, remain as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee with its great sway over all farm bills or take to the late Edward M. Kennedy’s powerful Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee?

For not only does the HELP Committee, as it is known, have one whale of a job to do if President’s Obama’s health care reform is ever going to see the light of day, but Kennedy’s old committee also control the future of food safety legislation that has already passed the House.

“Politics in our nation’s capitol stops for the death of almost no man—even if that man is the “Lion of the Senate,” one Senator Edward M. Kennedy, “ a blog writer for the American Agricultural Law Association observed over the weekend.

Before Senator Harkin gets to pick between chairing Agriculture or HELP, Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd has to decide if he wants to give up the Banking Committee gavel in order to succeed Kennedy.   Dodd’s is the ranking Democrat on HELP, right ahead of Harkin.

While most are thinking about how these chairmanship choices will impact either heath care or the country’s financial mess, Harkin’s role in the future of food safety could be critical to millions of Americans.

Just before the summer recess, the House passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which has now been read by the Senate and assigned to the HELP Committee.

H.R. 2749 imposes fees on food companies to fund increased inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.   It also focuses on traceability and makes both domestic and imported foods subject to the same safety standards.   The bill, authored by Michigan Democrat John Dingell, is largely the product of testimony of victims and families of victims of food-borne illness outbreaks during the past three years.

Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin’s food safety bill, S. 510, has also been assigned to the HELP Committee. Interestingly, while Democrats Kennedy and Dodd are listed as co-sponsors, Harkin is not. It also has Republicans Judd Gregg (NH), Richard Burr (NC), Lamar Alexander (TN), and Johnny Isakson (GA) as co-sponsors.

Prior to the House passage of H.R. 2749, grain, livestock, and other big agricultural interests worked mostly behind the scenes, but very effectively, to limit the impact of the reforms.   FDA’s expanded powers are not suppose to impact beef, pork, and poultry operations regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The new food safety law has also run into opposition from an assortment of rural Americans, including organic growers, roadside fruit and vegetable peddlers, and folks who don’t want to be part of any animal identification and tracking system.

Most observers say Harkin likes chairing Agriculture and what could be a better fit with Iowa? Still, he just got the last multi-year farm bill adopted last year and Iowans might like to see him in the historic role of handling health care. On the side, Harkin could trim to the sails on whatever food safety legislation passes to make sure it does hurt Iowa agriculture.

The only thing certain now is that Dodd must decide first.