Fishy business in Washington

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ACSH friend Jon Entine has written an incisive investigative piece featured in Slate.com exposing just how much politics can interfere with science. His chosen topic is the bizarre course towards eventual (we hope) governmental approval of the genetically-engineered AquaBounty salmon over the past two-plus years.

The salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies was found to be safe to eat and poses no threat to the environment (it actually eliminates many of the environmental effects that farmed salmon present), in an FDA 2010 report. Furthermore, in October 2011 the agency submitted its support of the fast-growing salmon s commercial production. Yet the AquaBounty salmon has faced continual opposition: from activists who doubt the FDA s assessment, from salmon-marketing states Congressional representatives trying to protect their home markets, and as well-documented in Jon Entine s piece the White House.

The FDA confirmed that the salmon is safe to eat and poses no serious environmental hazards. The approval document had made its way through every appropriate agency in an interagency review process coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which oversees the president s science policies and is empowered to enforce integrity guidelines.

But within days of the expected public release of the environmental assessment this spring, the application was frozen. The delay, sources within the government say, came after meetings with the White House, which was debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon, a move likely to infuriate a portion of its base.

This is exactly why politics should not interfere with science, says ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom. This piece blew me away even for someone as cynical as I am, I was astounded at some of the sleazy tactics that are used stall and ultimately stop certain processes from taking place. It s just so wrong

Sources within the FDA have repeatedly asserted that the scientific review process is complete and the agency is not the source of the holdup. The media office says the application itself has not been formally approved. FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey referred me to the executive branch, to the White House and OMB. The OMB referred me back to the FDA. The White House declined to respond to requests for comment.

The regulatory foot-dragging sparked a letter sent to the White House in late September from more than 50 scientists and interested parties concerned about the delay.

There is much more at stake here than just a fish, the letter asserted. The inexplicable regulatory bottleneck that has been encountered by the AquAdvantage salmon suggests that the FDA s science-based regulatory review process for the products of animal biotechnology has no predictable timeline and is holding up the development of an industry that promotes economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation in the United States.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross is shocked that the White House would take a position that inadvertently protects Chinese markets at the expense of an American company. The majority of the imported salmon Americans consume is grown and imported from China not exactly world-renowned for its pristine exports. Where are all the picketers with their protect American companies signs now?

In what may be a first, we actually agree with the position of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Their director of biotechnology, Gregory Jaffe, calls this approval process shocking.

This shouldn t be happening, said Gregory Jaffe. Although cautious about biotechnology, Jaffe participated in a scientific review panel that unanimously endorsed the FDA s findings that the salmon was safe. AquaBounty deserves regulatory due process, he added. We need science-based decisions made in a timely fashion. The public deserves this, and there are questions whether that is what s going on in this case,

Read Jon Entine s brilliant piece in its entirety here.