In a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), several members of the House and Senate demanded last week, on July 15, that the agency stop doing some of the very work it is empowered to do on behalf of Americans: regulate food safety.
The letter follows up on legislation passed by the House last month -- an amendment to an FDA (and other agency) appropriations bill introduced by Representatives Don Young (R-Ala.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) -- which bars the FDA from expending funds to approve a genetically engineered salmon (which grows faster than its wild cohorts), regardless of the agency's unprecedented and unequivocal scientific and environmental review. Senators are threatening similar legislation.
Their rationale is, "Given the strong and growing congressional opposition to the approval of [genetically engineered] fish in both chambers, spending time on further review…would be a waste of taxpayer dollars."
But the real waste of taxpayer dollars is congressional interference just as the exhaustive regulatory process is nearing the end, simply to protect the local salmon industry. This is meddling in the day-to-day regulation that is the legitimate province of the Executive Branch.
Undermining the claims of critics of the fast-growing salmon is that -- quite unnecessarily -- the FDA held the fish to the most strict and burdensome regulatory regime possible.
Even before Congress' eleventh-hour interference, FDA's policy resulted in an entire innovative business sector burdened with a policy that inflates research and development costs, inhibits innovation and deprives consumers. Not surprisingly, very few companies are willing to swim upstream against such a powerful regulatory current.
What kinds of animals are we talking about? The poor fish that has the politicians and regulators floundering and that has been treading water in regulatory limbo for more than a decade is simply an Atlantic salmon that contains a Chinook salmon growth hormone gene which is turned on all year instead of during only the warmer months, as in nature. This roughly halves the salmon's time to market.
The genetic change confers no detectable difference in its appearance, ultimate size, taste or nutritional value; it just grows faster, a tremendous economic advantage to those farming the fish in a closed water system, and to consumers, who will be able to take advantage of greater supply and lower prices. Lower priced salmon would be a boon for consumers seeking low-fat and affordable options for protein sources, especially in the face of food price inflation and the obesity epidemic.
The FDA's excessive and exhaustive analysis concluded that the salmon has no detectable differences and that it "is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon." And because the fish will all be sterile females and farmed inland, they won't "contaminate" the gene pool.
But that isn't good enough for Alaska Senator Mark Begich, whose home-state salmon industry (which already operates at capacity) supposedly would benefit from a decision to pull the plug on the more efficient, fast-growing salmon. He alleged earlier this month that the "FDA hasn't considered all of the potential negative impacts of genetically-altered fish and the strong opposition in Congress to approving something that could decimate wild salmon populations." Rubbish. The regulatory review has been excessive, and this is none of Congress' business anyway.
This fish story belies the myth that regulations are used only to protect consumers from big bad business practices; in fact, industry itself often lobbies for burdensome and unnecessary regulations which serve only to protect themselves from competition.
While existing big business benefits from barriers to entry by innovators, everyone else loses. Innovative industries face preposterous, discriminatory regulatory obstacles and consumers pay higher prices for scarcer (and often inferior-quality) goods. And others who might be tempted to invest in or create new technologies or products get the message: Even with a superior product, you can be blindsided by cynical and perfidious political forces as you near the goal line.
This is a sad commentary on innovation in America. And on Congress.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division.