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27Dec 2012

FDA releases findings on genetically modified salmon on holiday weekend after months of unexplained delay.

Paul Raeburn
Genetically engineered salmon, top; same aged control.

Beware Food and Drug Administration actions taken on Fridays--especially the Friday before a holiday weekend.

On Dec. 21, as we slipped into the comfortable arms of a long holiday weekend, the FDA published a report saying a kind of genetically engineered Atlantic salmon was safe for the environment and our dinner plates. Rosie Mestel of the Los Angeles Times properly noted in her second graf that the draft report was released "after months of unexplained delay."

The AquAdvantage salmon, as it's called, grows twice as fast as conventional salmon because a growth-hormone gene has been inserted into its DNA, Mestel explains. She quotes an attorney from the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. who notes that the documents were dated May 4, 2012. He claims that they were not released until Friday because the FDA "is aware of the controversial and irresponsible nature of its decision and wanted it to go out on the quietest day of the year."

My only concern with Mestel's story is her use of the loaded and irrelevant term "Frankenfish" to describe the genetically engineered salmon. She doesn't use it herself; she says that's what opponents of genetically modified foods call it. But she shouldn't let them say it. It is meaningless. Frankenfish were not assembled from body parts and brought back to life with a bolt of lightning. The intent of the term is to make the fish sound frightening, which they might or might not be--but calling them Frankenfish does not advance the debate. 

But Mestel came back on Dec. 26 with another story looking at the reasons for the delay in releasing the documents. She quotes an unnamed FDA spokesperson as saying "it was an oversight." She points to a Dec. 19th article by Jon Entine on Slate, in which he reports that the White House put a hold on the release of the documents. He quotes unnamed government sources who told him the delay was for political reasons--because approving genetically modified salmon was "likely to infuriate a portion of [the administration's] base." Entine is executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which says "the words 'gene' and 'genetic engineering' often stir fear and misunderstanding." It says its aim is to ease that fear by "disentangling ideology from science." 

Brady Dennis of The Washington Post also refers to the critics' use of the term Frankenfish. And he allows Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska to say, "The notion that consuming Frankenfish is safe for the public and our oceans is a joke." The follow-up question, which he didn't ask, or didn't report, should have been, "How do you know that, senator?" Begich's view seems to be an article of faith, not a reasoned viewpoint, and Dennis should have pointed that out. Or, if Begich had data to support his view, Dennis should have reported it. 

Mary Clare Jalonick  and Matthew Perrone of the AP do not report the unusual delay in the release of the documents, at least in this version of the story in the Christian Science Monitor. They do report that the FDA had said more than two years ago that the fish appeared to be safe. And, yes, they include the word Frankenfish.

Carey Gillam of Reuters delivers a straightforward story, about which I can say only one thing: In this version of her story at Yahoo, she does not--repeat does not--use Frankenfish. 

-Paul Raeburn





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