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GE salmon could affect FDA commissioner approval

Senate Health Committee advances nomination of Robert Califf to be new FDA commissioner.

The Senate Health Committee on Tuesday advanced the nomination for the new Food & Drug Administration commissioner, but how FDA will handle the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) salmon could be a sticking point before the nomination advances in the full Senate.

Last fall, the White House nominated Robert Califf to be commissioner of food and drugs at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. He was vetted by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions on Nov. 17, 2015, just two days before FDA took actions involving GE salmon. FDA is responsible for oversight of many foods in the U.S.

Committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) said he has concluded that Califf — after extensive vetting and responding to 37 pages of questions — is "the right person to lead the FDA."

In January 2015, then-FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg appointed Califf as FDA deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco. Califf previously served as vice chancellor of clinical and translational research at Duke University.

Califf’s nomination was unanimously approved during a business meeting on Jan. 12, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) warned that she would stall the nomination until reassurances were received on FDA’s labeling steps.

During action on the omnibus bill, legislators included language to make sure FDA would not allow the introduction of GE salmon into interstate commerce until the agency published its final labeling guidelines. “I want assurances this is what is going to happen,” Murkowski said before allowing Califf’s nomination to go to a full Senate vote.

“When we’re talking about genetically engineered fish for purposes of human consumption, voluntary labeling is not adequate,” she said. “It needs to be clear what consumers would be getting before it is introduced into the market."

The salmon, produced by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty, is an Atlantic salmon that reaches market size more quickly than non-GE farm-raised Atlantic salmon. The AquAdvantage salmon may be raised only in land-based, contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama.

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