WASHINGTON. Jan. 12, 2016 - Sen. Lisa Murkowski is holding up President Barack Obama’s nominee to run the Food and Drug Administration to force the labeling of genetically engineered salmon.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday approved Robert Califf’s nomination as FDA commissioner, but Murkowski, an Alaska Republican on the panel, said she would insist on getting the labeling issue addressed before the Senate votes on him.

Murkowski, who has unsuccessfully demanded that FDA require labeling of the fish, said she met with Califf in November and that he didn’t give her any warning that the agency would announce approval of the biotech fish two days later

“I was really taken back that he was not direct with me,” Murkowski told colleagues. “He clearly knows that was a priority for Alaskans. I got a little hot under the collar about that.”

Califf, a cardiologist, is currently FDA’s deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco.

Murkowski also said she wanted assurances that the fish wouldn’t go on the market before the FDA issues guidelines for labeling the product, a requirement she inserted in the fiscal 2016 omnibus appropriations bill enacted in December. She also continued to insist that labeling be mandatory.

“I want to make very, very certain that when we’re talking about these genetically engineered fish for purposes of human consumption that voluntary labeling is not adequate; that it is clear, absolutely clear on its face, what consumers would be getting before such time as this can be introduced into the market,” she said. 

Murkowski’s battle with the FDA comes as the food industry is lobbying Congress to pass legislation to preempt state GMO labeling laws and to set national standards for disclosure of biotech ingredients.

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Murkowski makes a distinction between labeling for animal products and food crops, such as corn and soybeans.

The same day the FDA approved the AquaBounty salmon, the agency also formally denied petitions asking it to require the labeling of genetically engineered foods, affirming its longstanding policy that there's no legal basis for mandating such disclosure on products that are essentially the same as their conventional versions. 

Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called Califf the “right person to lead the FDA.” The committee’s ranking Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington, said “Califf's record had made clear that he will be a strong, independent FDA commissioner.”


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