Indiana senators Todd Young, left, and Mike Braun are attempting to prevent a new block on AquaBounty's fish reaching consumers.
Indiana senators Todd Young, left, and Mike Braun are attempting to prevent a new block on AquaBounty's fish reaching consumers.

Indiana senators bid to stop new block on GM salmon

Transgenic-salmon producer AquaBounty has won the backing of two Indiana senators to remove a new block on selling its fish in the United States.

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A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision in March resolved a labelling issue that had prevented AquaBounty from producing and selling its fish in the US and paved the way for production to begin at AquaBounty’s on-land fish farm in Albany, Indiana.

But Alaskan Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, who calls GM salmon “Frankenfish” and suggests they are a threat to the wild salmon fishing industry, intervened last week.

Lisa Murkowski: Delaying tactics. Photo: CNN.
Lisa Murkowski: Delaying tactics. Photo: CNN.

Consumer study

She successfully added an extra provision – known as a rider - to a Senate FDA/USDA appropriations bill that could stall the advent of GM salmon sales for years.

The rider requires a commission convened by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the FDA to conduct a consumer study on the efficacy of USDA’s biotech food disclosure rule for informing consumers of the genetically engineered content of salmon products.

Now two senators from Indiana have launched an attempt to have Murkowski’s rider removed.

Undermines science

According to IEG Policy website, Mike Braun and Todd Young, who are also Republicans, say the rider is “unprecedented and inappropriate” and have written to Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby and ranking member Patrick Leahy to urge them to reject Murkowski’s provision.

“For Congress to intervene to prohibit commercialisation of an FDA-approved product on grounds other than safety or efficacy is an unprecedented action that not only undermines FDA’s scientific expertise, but it also casts serious doubt for every other FDA-approved product and their continued ability to commercialise,” wrote the senators.

How senator has held back GM tide

The US FDA approved AquaBounty’s quicker-growing AquAdvantage salmon in November 2015 after a review that spanned more than 20 years, declaring it as “safe and nutritious to eat” as conventional salmon.

Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski used a budget rider in 2016 to force the FDA to impose an import ban that prohibited AquaBounty from producing and selling its GE salmon in the US until the agency completed guidance on labelling.

In March this year, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb ended that ban, citing the USDA’s National Bioengineered Disclosure Standard. AquaBounty’s salmon is on the list of foods covered by the USDA standard and Gottlieb said the FDA “no longer has the authority to issue labelling guidance on this topic”.

This month Murkowski again used a rider to stop AquaBounty.

She reiterated her concern that the USDA rule does not require a text-based label for GE salmon — the standard allows companies to comply by either labelling its products as “bioengineered”, adding a USDA-approved “BE” symbol, opting for electronic disclosure, such as a QR code, or by sending interested consumers a text message with relevant information. AquaBounty officials have suggested they will use the “BE” symbol, but the company has also indicated that food distributors, which are exempt from the USDA rule, are its target market. 

“A clear, text-based label is the high standard that American consumers deserve,” said Murkowski in a statement on her budget rider. She has also introduced stand-alone legislation to require such labelling.

AquaBounty has so far only sold its fish in Canada, where labelling as a GM product is not required.

Source: IEG Policy

Remarkable operation

In a comment article in USA Today, Young said he had visited AquaBounty’s recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility in Albany, where he “saw first-hand this remarkable operation and the safeguards they have in place”.

Outlining the impact of Murkowski’s rider remaining in the bill, he wrote: “The results would be this: 160,000 fish currently maturing in Albany would be euthanised.

“Dozens of Hoosiers (Indiana residents) would be out of a job.

“The operation would be moved to another country — likely China — which sees the incredible value in dominating agriculture innovation.

“And the young dreamers and doers across America who are investing in ag technology will suddenly have to wonder whether their effort and investment is truly worth it.

‘How free is our market?’

“If one legacy industry (Alaskan salmon fishing) can manipulate Congress to unilaterally kill one innovative company, how free is our free market?

“I’m doing everything I can to keep this provision out of our funding bills to protect innovation and ensure the free market is allowed to operate. But with powerful interests organising this manoeuvre behind closed doors, there are no guarantees of success.”

He told AquaBounty: “You’re on the right side of history. You just better hope you’re on the right side of Congress.”

Benefits foreign companies

The Wall Street Journal used an opinion column 10 days ago to criticise Murkowski’s blocking attempt, saying these types of studies “are usually reserved for pharmaceutical drugs, can take years, and in this case would require the destruction of AquaBounty’s fish, as well as many jobs”.

In a statement after Murkowski’s rider was accepted, AquaBounty chief executive Sylvia Wulf said: “This misguided move by one senator hurts a US company, costs US jobs, wastes taxpayer money, and ultimately benefits foreign companies that sell fish to US consumers.

“In an attempt to protect her home state fishing industry, a single senator is ignoring the authority and decisions of Congress and two federal regulatory agencies and depriving American consumers of safe, healthy, nutritious and domestically raised salmon.”