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Will FDA Salmon Ruling Lead to Labeling Law?

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prepares to release its final ruling on whether a genetically engineered salmon will end up in grocery stores, a handful of northwestern lawmakers are watching especially closely.

The salmon, developed by a Massachusetts-based biotech firm, AquaBounty, would be the first genetically modified animal approved for consumption and commercialization. While the FDA has already said the salmon would be safe to eat and would pose no threat to the environment, the agency has yet to flash its final green light. That approval could come any day.

If and when it does, some lawmakers want the genetically engineered salmon to carry a label saying it’s genetically modified, in part, they say, to preserve the identity of their state’s fisheries.

“It’s a hundreds of millions of dollars industry for us,” Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said in an interview. “Our salmon’s going to be sitting next to an inferior product and consumers won’t know the difference because there’s no label.”

Earlier this year, Begich introduced a bill that would require labels on the genetically engineered salmon. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, attached the measure to the 2014 Agriculture appropriations bill, winning a 15-14 vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee in June. The spending bill would require the FDA to spend at least $150,000 on a label identifying genetically engineered fish.

“So we’re kind of creating a back door, so if in their lack of wisdom, they approve this, FDA has to create a label,” Begich said. Alaska salmon has its own label: Wild-Caught Alaska Salmon.

Earlier this month, Begich wrote to the agency, urging it not to make any announcements about AquaBounty approval over the holidays. Last year, the FDA issued key assessments on the company’s petition on the day after Christmas.

“Release of this decision came as an unwelcome present in the midst of last year’s holiday season,” Begich wrote, “and at a time when most Americans were more focused on their families than on anticipating such a major policy decision.”

Begich said last week that the FDA has assured him the agency won’t drop any major news over the holiday: “They said they heard us loud and clear.”

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