Meat of the Matter: Swimming upstream

After a nearly 20-year of regulatory journey, FDA finally approves a genetically engineered salmon that grows faster than wild fish. But problems persist not with the fish, with FDA.

The long-awaited approval of genetically enhanced farm-raised salmon has been confirmed by the Food and Drug Administration, just in time to refuel the long-simmering controversy over biotechnology as it's been applied to crops.

Now, according to the anti-GMO movement, Frankenfood has become Frankenfish.

Fortunately, as this complex issue has "matured," and more of the science underlying genetic engineering has been further validated, the media has begun to behave a little better in terms of how biotech news coverage is slanted.

The Huffington Post, no cheerleader for conventional food production, offered a headline simply stating that, "FDA Oks Genetically Modified Salmon for Human Consumption." Although the story went on to acknowledge that "critics call the modified salmon "Frankenfish," the report noted that the GE fish are bred to be sterile, they're raised inside land-based tanks, not in the ocean, and that FDA found "no biologically relevant differences in the nutritional profiles of AquAdvantage Salmon, compared to that of other farm-raised Atlantic salmon."

Hopefully this educates Americans that much of the salmon they're already eating is actually grown in aquaculture operations.

Not all mainstream news outlets were so even-handed, however.

The New York Times, whose columnists have long decried the entire approval petition for the AquAdvantage salmon, noted that FDA's decision "capped a long struggle" for the Aqua Bounty company that developed the GE salmon, and then added that its approval "has been fiercely opposed by consumer and environmental groups" (and one prominent newspaper).

Indeed, the first quote in the story is from the infamous Wenonah "The Shouter" Hauter, a lifelong antagonist for the industry and an all-around hater of all things industrial: "This unfortunate, historic decision disregards the vast majority of consumers, many independent scientists, numerous members of Congress and salmon growers around the world, who have voiced strong opposition."

Just to be clear Ms. Hauter: Sound science and informed scientists are supposed to form their conclusions with complete disregard for the opinions of congressional representatives, consumers and most certainly from competing salmon growers.

The opinions of those constituencies are just that: Opinions, which have no bearing whatsoever on the scientific findings of an objective review panel.

Even "independent scientists" are not entitled to second-guess the science, even if they're unhappy with the results or if they don't happen to approve of the food or pharmaceutical under scrutiny. If they do object, it has to be on scientific grounds, not because of political or ethical opposition.

The Times was also quick to report that the Center for Food Safety, organization known as one of the leading opponents of biotechnology, would be filing a lawsuit challenging FDA's approval. On what grounds? The story doesn't say, so I guess we'll find out when other activists find out.

Meanwhile, it's enough to know that they're filing suit!

Addressing legitimate concerns

This entire tortuous process brings two related issues to light. The first is obvious: Unless and until the food industry decides to begin voluntary labeling of genetically enhanced foods, this fight will go on forever. There's too much emotion on the activist side, and too much money invested by industry for the controversy to just fade away.

Like abortion, immigration or other deeply contentious wedge issues, nobody's fighting over the facts any longer, as activists rely on fear, ignorance and suspicion to convince people of their messaging

The other issue that's concerning, however, is whether the FDA is equipped to deal with highly technical applications such as the one filed for GE salmon. There is the science to evaluate, of course, but then there are the practicalities of the process of developing a faster-growing fish.

This isn't just about whether the genetic engineering is effective part one of FDA's approval process but whether it's safe, as well.

There is a contingent of activists who have attempted to derail the entire science of biotechnology by playing the "unsafe and untested" card. They oppose biotech on the basis that everything developed by genetic engineering is either dangerous or potentially dangerous.

As the percentage of people regularly eating food products containing at least some ingredients derived from GE crops approaches 90%, that argument is losing its leverage faster than the bottom tier of Republican presidential candidates.

There are, however, legitimate concerns over the safety and long-term impacts of genetic engineering. GE food animals are newcomers to the production chain, and while the science says the bioengineered food ingredients are safe, that doesn't mean that aquaculture operations might not cause problems that wouldn't qualify as public health problems, but might generate commercial controversies that an agency like FDA is ill-equipped to foresee or handle, should they arise.

I know that big government haters would violently object, but what's needed is an agency that has jurisdiction similar to what the Federal Aviation Administration has: Control over both the safety of not just airplanes but all of civil aviation, including certification of pilots, approvals of aircraft design and airport operations and management of air traffic facilities and systems.

To ensure a safe and functional civil aviation system, it isn't enough to simply approve aircraft engineering and design which would be equivalent of verifying the safety of a genetically modified plant or food animal ingredient.

So much depends on how and where an airplane is being flown, and to extend the analogy, much of the controversy over biotech is about how and where it's applied, not whether the basic science itself is "safe."

Since there is no "efficacy" required with food products, FDA stops after determining the safety of a GE crop or, in this case, a fish. All of the potential complications arising from the commercialization of said crops or animals are left to industry and its opponents to fight it out.

That's no way to run a railroad.

Or a regulatory agency.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.