Here we go again.

The Food and Drug Administration has temporarily blocked the importation of genetically engineered salmon, the result of a resolution inserted into the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed back in December.

The provision in the bill stated that FDA “shall not allow the introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any food that contains genetically engineered salmon until FDA publishes final labeling guidelines for informing consumers of such content,” according to Bloomberg

Back in November, FDA approved the AquaBounty company’s AquAdvantage genetically engineered salmon, the first GE animal food approved for human consumption. However, the company’s product has yet to reach American markets.

“The decision [to block imports] has no impact on AquaBounty’s operations, as we are not currently importing our salmon into the U.S.,” CEO Ronald Stotish said in a statement.

So the controversy continues over whether or not food products containing genetically engineered ingredients should trigger mandatory labeling or not.

Alaska’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski issued a statement declaring that, “I adamantly oppose the FDA’s misguided decision to allow GE salmon to be placed in our kitchens and on our tables, and I firmly believe that mandatory labeling guidelines must be put in place as soon as possible so consumers know what it is they are purchasing.”

Of course, we don’t know whether the senator actually believes that GE foods pose a threat to human health and well-being, but we do know that she is adamant about protecting the marketing position of her state’s salmon fisheries, which could someday be threatened by salmon from aquaculture operations.

Of course, the FDA’s draft guidelines state that companies marketing GMO salmon can voluntarily label it accordingly.

But that hasn’t happened yet, nor does it seem to be imminent.

Activist ammunition

For all the hoopla accompanying the decision last month by Campbell’s Soup Co. departure from what had been a tacit agreement among food-industry manufacturers to hide behind the excuse that GMO labeling “would be too costly for consumers,” the company’s stated support for federal labeling standards sends the wrong signal. By not going the distance and deciding to voluntarily labeling its food products as containing “ingredients grown from genetically enhanced seeds,” or something like that, the company is just feeding into the fears stoked by activists: Consumers need to know if there are GMOs in their food because they’re dangerous!

Campbell’s support for a federal labeling standard for GE ingredients amounts to an acknowledgement that consumers are correct in harboring concerns about the safety and wholesomeness of products containing GE corn, soy or other components. Even if a compromise bill defining food industry’s standards for voluntary GMO labeling could pass Congress, which is highly doubtful, that would be the worst possible outcome.

Such a bill, by effectively outlawing state regulations mandating GMO labeling, would simply hand activists even more ammunition with which to attack the agri-business developers of GE food crops and the food processors marketing products containing ingredients derived from those crops.

And leave food companies in the exact same position they are now: Cowering on the sidelines, hoping someone else will pick up the ball and run with it.

There is one — and only one — solution to the salve the fears of consumers regarding the consumption of the very foods they’re already eating, and that is positive, proactive labeling that promotes genetic enhancement as not only vital to feeding the world but destined to provide nutritional and economic benefits to American consumers, as well.

Unless and until somebody in the food industry steps up to the plate, the half-hearted “endorsement” of Campbell’s, coupled with the FDA’s weak-kneed inertia on approving GE salmon, only makes the challenge of finally convincing consumers that biotechnology is safe and effective that much harder.  

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator