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Friday
Aug122011

Fishy Business: The Bipartisan Effort to Shut Out Competition in the Salmon Industry

Demand for farmed Atlantic salmon fillets has risen steadily, according to the FDA. Image source, fda.govMembers of Congress from both parties are trying to keep the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from actually doing its job and approving a more efficiently farmed salmon that has already been determined to be safe from coming to market. In a piece, “Fishy Legislation,” published today in Defining Ideas, a journal of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Dr. Henry Miller and I expose this exercise in crony capitalism.

You may remember my piece a few weeks ago, “A Political (Franken)fish Story,” with Dr. Miller in The Hill’s Congress blog on this issue. In Defining Ideas, we further explain the legislation being pushed to make the FDA skirt the science in order to protect certain players in the salmon industry. As I wrote earlier, that effort has already passed the House, and the Senate is set to address it when they return from their August recess.

On the surface, the legislators are suggesting that the genetically modified fish are somehow unsafe, but that doesn’t square with reality:

The genetic change confers no detectable difference in its appearance, ultimate size, taste, or nutritional value; the fish simply grows faster, a tremendous economic advantage to those farming the fish in a closed water system. It’s also an advantage to consumers, who will be able to take advantage of greater supply and lower prices. Lower priced salmon would be a boon for consumers seeking low-fat and affordable options for protein sources, especially in the face of food price inflation and the obesity epidemic.

After an exhaustive analysis, the FDA concluded that the modified salmon has no detectable differences from its unmodified relatives and that it “is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.” In addition, since the fish will be farmed inland and all of its females will be sterile, there is virtually no possibility of negative environmental effects such as “genetic contamination” of the wild Atlantic salmon’s gene pool. (Even in the worst-case scenario, these modified fish would compete poorly in the wild.)

What makes this story truly remarkable is that the FDA has already put the salmon in question through a rigorous scientific review and Congress is now trying to interfere. As we explain in the piece, the standards already in place are, in fact, too burdensome:

What makes the congressional action particularly insupportable is that FDA’s process itself was already excessively burdensome. After more than a decade of dithering, in 2008 the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine chose to subject every genetically engineered animal intended as food to the same pre-market approval procedures and regulations that drugs used to treat animal diseases undergo. The rationale, according to an FDA policy statement, is that a genetically engineered construct “that is in a [genetically engineered] animal and is intended to affect the animal’s structure or function meets the definition of an animal drug.” But this explanation conveniently ignores the science, the FDA’s own precedents, and the availability of other, more appropriate regulatory options.

The comments of Ronald Stotish, CEO of Aquabounty, the company which pioneered this salmon, express his frustration with the excessive regulation:

We hoped that the rigorous science-based review would provide confidence and assurance to the general public that their interests were being protected…In retrospect, however we were naive to assume that the well-organized and well-funded opponents of technology would accept a science-based process.

You can read the whole piece at Defining Ideas.

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