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Copenhagen, Denmark

If you’re a pescatarian who enjoys a good southern fried catfish, bad news: Congress has decided that effectively, catfish are now ‘meat.’ No more corn meal. No more tartar sauce. You’ll have to stick to tilapia or salmon, which, according to our government, are still fish. Of course, this is silly. Tilapia, salmon, catfish--all these things are meat. But a recent change in the government’s definition of catfish raises issues of international trade, food safety, government spending, and, according to some, even the future of the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic fisheries that depend on it. The shift has its roots in the 2008 Farm Bill, which included an amendment designating catfish as a “species amenable to the Federal Meat Inspection Act,” which “requires appointment of inspectors to examine and inspect all meat food products prepared for commerce.” The 2014 farm bill made it official: Starting this month, all fish in the order Siluriformes, which includes catfish and Asian farmed species like pangasius and basa, now fall under the purview of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service which requires inspectors to be present at facilities in which catfish are processed and labeled.  All other fish and seafood however, will remain under the authority of the FDA Seafood Inspection Program, which engages in fewer inspections. So why catfish? Are they especially unsafe that they deserve more government oversight than any other seafood? American catfish farmers seem to think so. During two 2011 public comment sessions that requested feedback on the proposed catfish inspection rule, representatives from the catfish farming industry applauded additional oversight and regulation of their businesses. They were all very concerned with consumer health and safety. A catfish industry representative said in his comment: “For the sake of consumer health, first and foremost, and also for the health of an important job-creating domestic and import industry, it is critical that FSIS begin regulating catfish.” Other industry representatives weighed in similarly. To anyone familiar with the food industry’s usual attitude towards more government regulation—for any reason—these comments are extraordinary. Also surprisingly in favor of more regulation was Republican Senator Thad Cochran from Mississippi (the state responsible for the majority of U.S. farmed catfish production), who introduced the catfish inspection rule in the 2008 Farm Bill. “The Government Accountability Office recently released a report on the current FDA seafood inspection policy, which characterized its effectiveness as limited and in dire need of strengthening. Only two percent of imported catfish is currently inspected in the United States,” Senator Cochran commented. It’s interesting that the Senator referenced the GAO report panning the FDA inspections as ineffective, because another GAO report, released in 2012 and updated this month, found that the USDA catfish program “would be an inefficient use of taxpayer funds and a duplication of activities because facilities that process both catfish and other seafood would be inspected by both USDA and FDA.” The report is titled “Responsibility for Inspecting Catfish Should Not Be Assigned to USDA.” There are other issues. The GAO found that FSIS’s decision to focus on Salmonella in its inspection program was based on “outdated and limited information in its risk assessment . . . For example, FSIS identified a single outbreak of Salmonella-caused illnesses, but this outbreak was not clearly linked to catfish.” Since that outbreak, GAO reported, the FDA in 1997 updated its seafood regulations, and “no similar outbreaks have occurred since.” The development of the FSIS catfish inspection program is expected to cost $14 or $15.4 million, depending whom you ask (with taxpayers on the hook for most of that), with annual costs of $2.5 million, though this may change as the program moves forward, according to a source at USDA. Contrast this with the estimated $700,000 the FDA currently spends inspecting catfish facilities. The new program will use hazard analysis methods that, according to the GAO, are basically no different from those that were employed by the FDA. Just to reiterate: that’s an up-front cost of $14 million and an ongoing additional cost of $1.8 million to be spent on inspections aimed at preventing Salmonella infections from catfish based on an outbreak that may or may not have been caused by catfish nearly 20 years ago. I contacted the USDA to ask about the reasoning behind the program, and the response was essentially ‘we serve at the pleasure of the U.S. Congress.’ In other words, we don’t make the laws, we just carry ‘em out. The GAO makes a strong case against the FSIS catfish inspection program. But it never addressed a question that nagged me ever since I heard about this whole thing: What about all the other seafood in the U.S.? Senator Cochran and other supporters of the FSIS catfish inspection program repeatedly refer to the FDA’s two percent inspection rate for all seafood. Catfish have not been identified as any more or less dangerous to consumers than other seafood. So then, for the sake of consumer safety, if the FDA is so inadequate, shouldn’t all seafood be subject to USDA inspection? I called Senator Cochran’s office and posed this question to one of his staffers. “He’s not stated that,” the spokesperson said. Is he looking into anything like that? I asked. “No, he hasn’t addressed that, no,” he replied. By now you’ve probably figured out that consumer safety is not in fact the likely inspiration for this rule. “It’s all meant to try to deter Chinese, Vietnam, and Thailand farm-raised catfish from getting into this country,” said Tim Sughrue, a former fisherman, research biologist, and now vice president of Congressional Seafoods, a wholesaler and processor based out of Jessup, Maryland. Sughru and others have pointed out that one of the biggest threats to the domestic farm-raised catfish industry is the import of farmed fish from Asia, like basa and pangasius. The FSIS program requires all Siluriform imports to meet the same inspection criteria required by the USDA—a standard that for now, few, if any, of the Asian importers can meet. Congressman Thompson of Mississippi, commenting on the proposed rule, admitted “the rule will have tremendous impact on jobs in my home state of Mississippi . . . Unfortunately, our acreage and production numbers are down.” John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability at ProFish, another Maryland wholesaler, told me that it makes sense that domestic catfish farmers want to stop Asian imports. His sales of domestic farmed catfish are 10 percent of what they were in the last two or three years. But that’s also partly due to a new newcomer to the food scene in the Chesapeake region—a fish that John is actually quite happy to be selling more of: the blue catfish. Blue catfish were introduced as sport fish to the Chesapeake in the 1970s. “Once they were introduced, they spread pretty rapidly,” said Joseph Love, the tidal mass program manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The blue catfish is voracious. It is an apex predator, and has no natural predators, is considered an invasive fish, and described by NOAA as a threat to the balance of the Chesapeake ecosystem. “Part of the reason for the panic is that over the last few years the population is becoming more abundant,” said Love. “Many are aware of situation in the James River [where varying sources put the biomass between 70 and 90 percent blue catfish], and they’re concerned that the majority of the biomass is locked up in a single species. That’s scary to a lot of people who don’t want to see that happen. They care about the biodiversity of the Potomac . . . It’s also becoming obvious to anglers and commercial watermen. I think people are pretty concerned.” Sughru from Congressional Seafoods is one of those people. He’s worried not only for the future of iconic Chesapeake products like blue crab, but also for the populations of anadromous fish, like herring, rock fish, and shad—that are born and spawn in the Chesapeake and its tributaries, then swim back out to the Atlantic. Sughru said blue catfish eat these fish, their eggs, and their hatchlings as they travel up and down the Chesapeake, and this could affect commercial and recreational fisheries all along the Atlantic coast. “There is just no way you’re going to exterminate this fish,” he said. Sughru painted a dire picture: “They live for 20 years or more, grow to 100 pounds, and they’re the top predator in the Chesapeake Bay. They eat everything and nothing eats them.” Except for us. John Rorapaugh, like Sughru, has been selling more and more of the insatiable invader. “You feel like you’re doing the right thing,” he said. “You know, you’re bringing a protein to the public that’s healthy, and you’re helping the ecosystem. Even The Source [Wolfgang Puck’s DC restaurant] sells them now, as a fish sandwich and fish and chips, so you know if high-end restaurants are carrying them then it’s clearly a good protein.” Blue catfish are in the order Siluriformes and as such are subject to the new FSIS inspections. “It’ll put [the blue catfish fishery] out of business,” Sughru told me. Rorapaugh was not quite as alarmed, but he shared some of Sughru’s concern. “It’s still going to be a successful fishery, but I just hope [the FSIS inspections] don’t really increase the cost of doing business,” he said. Because of the abundance, mild flavor, and white flakey meat characteristic of blue catfish, Rorapaugh suggested that the fishery will continue to grow, and more and more people will get on board with eating this invasive fish. But will that be enough? And will the new catfish inspection program be an impediment to controlling the exploding blue catfish population? Joseph Love, of the Maryland DNR, wasn’t happy about any potential barrier: “Our job here has been to try and grease the wheels of harvest for this animal in a way that helps minimize its impact to our ecosystem . . . We want people to be able to buy this catfish at the lowest price possible to ensure that this animal gets harvested. The commercial harvest becomes a way of managing its biomass responsibly. Since we don’t have enough gear or people or time to go out there and harvest like [the commercial fishers can], we really need it to be incentivized as much as possible. So I wouldn’t call it a roadblock but it’s certainly a complication.” There aren’t a lot of winners here. A statement on Senator Cochran’s website hailed the new FSIS catfish inspections as a win for consumers, but there’s little to no evidence that the rule will do anything to meaningfully address seafood safety, even though the problems are real: The science-based ocean conservation organization Oceana (full disclosure: my employer) has investigated shortcomings in government seafood traceability, and labeling, that leave the door open for fraud and the import of illegal and unregulated fish, including possibly unsafe products. GAO reports similarly conclude that seafood regulation is inadequate. Why congress is spending money to shift regulatory responsibility from the FDA for one single category of fish, rather than just strengthening current FDA practices, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even the domestic catfish industry will likely enjoy only temporary relief, according to some public commenters on the proposed rule, as well as several people I spoke with who are familiar with international and domestic seafood markets. These sources predicted that within a few years some Asian importers will adapt, the market will adjust, and again, we’ll have cheap Asian imports flooding the market. But by then, hopefully, the Obama Administration will have enacted rules that require traceability information to follow all seafood from the boat to the dinner plate. If that happens, consumers will be able to more easily decide. Ideally, when you go to the grocery store, you won’t just see ‘catfish’ at the seafood counter. You’ll know exactly what kind of fish you’re getting, how it was caught or farmed, and where it comes from. And in this writer’s mind, it’s a pretty clear decision: This is a rare instance in which a food choice has a direct, positive impact on the environment, rather than the other way around. I do love me some striped bass, blue crabs, and even herring. But I’m going to try to eat as much blue catfish from the Chesapeake Bay as I can, hopefully before there’s nothing else left to eat in this important ecosystem. And luckily I’m not a pescatarian, so catfish are still on my menu. Update: 3/22/16, 2:27 pm: An earlier version of this post cited the GAO report which stated that the annual cost of the program will be $14 million. A USDA spokesperson emailed me saying that that is inaccurate, that the $14 million reflects the cost to develop the program, and that the ongoing annual cost during the transitional phase will be $2.5 million.


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The level of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal sold in the U.S. would be kept to a maximum of 100 parts per billion under new recommendations by the Food & Drug Administration. Exposure to the toxic element in infants and pregnant women can result in a child’s decreased performance on developmental learning tests, FDA says. FDA’s proposed limit matches the limit set by the European Commission for rice intended for infants and young children. FDA found that most infant rice cereal in the U.S. meets or is close to meeting its new limit. Out of 76 samples from retail stores in the U.S. in 2014, 47% met the standard, and 78% were at or below 110 ppb, FDA’s data show. “The proposed limit is a prudent and achievable step to reduce exposure to arsenic among infants,” says Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. FDA is advising parents to give babies iron-rich infant cereals from multiple grains, not just rice, including oats and barley. Much of the arsenic that accumulates in rice is from naturally occurring sources in soil and water. Manufacturers have been working with rice suppliers, growers, and researchers for many years to lower the amount of arsenic that gets taken up by rice. Baby food manufacturer Gerber claims that its rice cereal is “safe and already meets the guidance level,” because of these combined efforts. Consumer groups, which have long been urging FDA to set a limit for inorganic arsenic in rice food products, are welcoming the proposed limit for infant rice cereal. But they remain concerned by the lack of arsenic limits for other rice-based foods consumed by children and adults. “This is particularly true of children’s ready-to-eat cereals,” says Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center. “We believe the FDA can act swiftly to protect public health and set levels on these products,” she says.


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Three herbicides—amitrole, isoproturon, and triasulfuron—will be banned in the European Union, effective Sept. 30. An EU standing committee voted April 15 against renewing approval of the chemicals, citing potential groundwater contamination and risks to aquatic life. Two of the herbicides—amitrole and isoproturon—have been heavily scrutinized because of their ability to mimic hormones and disrupt the endocrine system. The European Food Safety Authority previously raised concerns about the endocrine-disrupting effects of the two herbicides, as well as data gaps related to their toxicity. EU officials had the option of banning the pesticides as endocrine disruptors. Under a 2009 EU pesticide regulation, endocrine-disrupting pesticides are not allowed on the EU market. But under that legislation, industry can apply for exemptions for “negligible exposure” and “serious danger to plant health.” Environmental groups are speculating that EU officials chose not to regulate the herbicides on the basis of their endocrine-disrupting effects because of these exemptions. Instead, EU officials say they based their decision on other concerns, such as risks to groundwater and aquatic plants, and gaps in toxicity data. Approval of the three herbicides in the EU was set to expire on June 30, but EU officials extended the date by three months in response to pushback from pesticide manufacturers. EU member states must withdraw their approvals of the three herbicides by Sept. 30, but they can allow a grace period of up to one additional year to phase out the chemicals. Amitrole and isoproturon, marketed by Nufarm and other companies, are widely used across the EU. Amitrole, a triazole herbicide used to control annual grasses and aquatic weeds, is not used on food crops because it causes cancer in laboratory animals. Isoproturon is a selective, systemic herbicide used to control annual grasses and broadleaf weeds in cereals in several EU countries. Triasulfuron, a sulfonylurea herbicide made by Syngenta, is used on cereal crops throughout the world. The environmental group Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe is welcoming the EU’s decision to ban the herbicides, but it notes that many other endocrine-disrupting pesticides still remain on the market. The group is urging EU officials to stop delaying their decision on those chemicals. “In the meantime, these pesticides stay on the market, and people and the environment remain unprotected against their harms,” the group warns.


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Pharma buyout Pharmaceutical company Shire of Dublin is buying rival firm Baxalta of Bannockburn, Illinois, in a US$32-billion deal, after a months-long pursuit. Both companies focus on rare-disease areas, including haematology, immunology and neuroscience. The firms say that as one company they will be able to make $500 million in cost savings. Shire will pay Baxalta shareholders in cash and shares, giving them around 34% ownership of the merged company. The deal is awaiting approval by regulators. Cancer screening The California sequencing-technology firm Illumina announced the formation of a new company, GRAIL, on 10 January. GRAIL will use Illumina’s genetic-sequencing technology to screen for cancer from a blood sample. A ‘liquid biopsy’ would find minuscule amounts of tumour-specific DNA or RNA in the blood before the person felt symptoms of the disease, when it may be easier to treat. GRAIL has more than US$100 million in funding, in part from Bill Gates and from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Early star remnants A faraway gas cloud has been discovered that contains tiny amounts of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium — such as carbon, oxygen and iron — that are possible remnants of the Universe’s first stars. The elements were detected in spectra collected by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and computer simulations show how the Universe’s first stars would have exploded and spewed the elements out (pictured). The results were reported at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Kissimmee, Florida, on 8 January. The cloud is so distant that it appears as it did 1.8 billion years after the Big Bang. China science prize A team led by quantum physicist Jian-Wei Pan was awarded the first-class prize of China’s 2015 National Natural Science Award, one of the country’s top science accolades, on 8 January. Pan and his team at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei won for their pioneering work in quantum entanglement and teleportation. For the first time in 11 years, no one was awarded China’s top science prize, the State Supreme Science and Technology Award. Pharmacologist Youyou Tu, who last year won China its first science Nobel, had been tipped for the award. Singapore surge Science spending in Singapore is set to surge by 18%, the government announced on 8 January. At its annual meeting, the country’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council endorsed plans to invest 19 billion Singapore dollars (US$13.2 billion) between 2016 and 2020, up from 16.1 billion Singapore dollars between 2011 and 2015. The country will prioritize research funding in four areas: advanced manufacturing, health and biomedical sciences, services and the digital economy, and urban sustainability. Oil-pipeline fight Pipeline firm TransCanada Corporation said on 6 January that it will seek more than US$15 billion in compensation for economic losses under the North American Free Trade Agreement after the Keystone XL pipeline that it was due to build was cancelled (unused pipes pictured). The pipeline would have carried relatively dirty oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to US refineries. But in November 2015, the US Department of State said that the project was not in the “national interest”. TransCanada, which is headquartered in Calgary, called the decision “arbitrary and unjustified”, arguing that the project was environmentally benign. The company is also challenging the decision in the US federal court. H-bomb claims North Korea’s fourth nuclear test on 6 January was almost certainly not a hydrogen bomb, contrary to the country’s claims. The seismic event caused by the test was estimated at magnitude 4.85 by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna. The explosion that caused that event was probably hundreds or thousands of times smaller than would have resulted from a hydrogen bomb, analysts say. North Korea might have tested a boosted fission device: a conventional fission bomb with a small quantity of the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium added. See go.nature.com/gyqqya and page 127 for more. Science passport Seven science publishers, including PLOS and the American Geophysical Union, announced on 7 January that they will start requiring researchers to identify themselves using the ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) system when submitting papers. Globally, 1.8 million researchers have registered for ORCID’s unique identifiers — machine-readable numbers akin to a scientific passport. The system is run by a non-profit organization that aims to create a transparent record linking scientists to their research outputs (see Nature 526, 281–283; 2015). Chimps returned A legal battle over the ‘personhood’ of two chimpanzees has ended with their return to a primate facility in Louisiana, Science reported on 8 January. The two chimps were loaned to the State University of New York at Stony Brook for use as research animals. Animal-rights group the Nonhuman Rights Project sued in New York to have the animals released to a sanctuary, arguing that the chimps should have certain legal rights afforded to humans. The return of the chimps to the New Iberia Research Center in early December effectively removes the animals from New York’s jurisdiction. Insecticide threat The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said on 6 January that the controversial insecticide imidacloprid does present a threat to bees and other pollinators. The preliminary risk assessment is the first of four on the neonicotinoids, an insecticide class that has been linked to bee declines. The European Food Safety Authority announced on 11 January that it would be updating its own risk assessments of three neonicotinoids — clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid. The European Union heavily restricted use of neonicotinoids in 2013 on the basis of previous evaluations. UK drinking guides Any level of alcohol intake increases cancer risk, according to draft guidelines released by the UK Chief Medical Officers on 8 January. Men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week — around 7 glasses of wine or 6 pints of average-strength beer — according to the recommendations, which substantially lower the amount for men. The models used to calculate the recommendations considered risks and benefits, for instance cancer and alleged beneficial cardiovascular effects. The guidelines have had a mixed reception, with some complaints that they are ‘nannying’. See page 127 for more. Linear collider Japan should ramp up its expertise as it prepares to host the world’s next-generation particle smasher in the 2020s, reports the country’s High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) in Tsukuba. An action plan published on 6 January lays out the KEK’s goals for the preparation phases of the International Linear Collider, including a goal to triple the number of home-grown accelerator scientists and engineers. In 2012, Japanese researchers proposed hosting the 31-kilometre-long accelerator, which will smash electrons together with their antimatter partners. However, no government has yet promised any funding. Nations burned off around 143 billion cubic metres of natural gas — roughly 3.5% of global production — into the atmosphere in 2012, according to researchers at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (C. D. Elvidge et al. Energies 9, 14; 2016). Data from a polar-orbiting satellite showed that Russia led the way in terms of volume. The practice is common in fields that lack pipelines and markets for natural gas and policymakers are looking for ways to avoid the wastage. 3.9 × 1013 The number of bacteria in a typical human, alongside 3 × 1013 human cells. This new estimate challenges the idea that bacteria outnumber human cells by 10 to 1. Source: Sender, R., Fuchs, S. & Milo, R. Preprint at bioRxiv http://doi.org/bbpz (2016). 17 January NASA plans to launch its Jason3 satellite to measure Earth’s sea levels, adding to knowledge of ocean circulation and climate change. go.nature.com/rqfqmh 19–21 January The Festival of Genomics takes place in London, bringing together industrialists, academics and policymakers. go.nature.com/cw5hfb


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Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller atomizers are displayed for sale at a garden shop at Bonneuil-Sur-Marne near Paris, France, June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau More BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The head of Europe's food safety watchdog has written to a group of nearly 100 senior scientists strongly rejecting their criticisms in a row about the safety of weed-killer ingredient glyphosate. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which advises European Union policymakers, issued an opinion in November that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer. That was at odds with a view from the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), sparked outrage among environmental campaigners and divided the scientific community. The IARC said in March that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans" while environmental groups have been calling for a ban on glyphosate. Ninety-six academics from around the world signed an open letter to European Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, dated Nov. 27, urging EU authorities to ignore the European watchdogs's opinion. "We urge you and the European Commission to disregard the flawed EFSA finding on glyphosate in your formulation of glyphosate health and environmental policy for Europe," the letter said. It was written by Christopher Portier from the U.S.-based non-governmental organization the Environmental Defense Fund. Portier was also a specialist consulted during the IARC's research on glyphosate. The letter called for "a transparent, open and credible review of the scientific literature". EFSA's opinion could lead the 28-member European Union to renew approval for glyphosate, which was brought into use by Monsanto in the 1970s and is used in its top-selling product Roundup and many other herbicides around the world. In a reply to Portier dated Jan. 13, EFSA Executive Director Bernhard Url described glyphosate as "a keenly debated issue". "I strongly disagree with your contention that EFSA has not applied open and objective criteria to its assessment," Url wrote in the letter, seen by Reuters. Url said representatives of EFSA and the IARC would meet early this year to clarify differences of view between the two bodies and that the IARC evaluations "represent a first step". EU sources said the meeting would probably take place in Brussels in mid-February. EFSA, based in Parma, Italy, also noted its reply was to Portier and the scientists who signed the letter, not the IARC. "We should not compare this first screening assessment with the more comprehensive hazard assessment done by authorities such as EFSA, which are designed to support the regulatory process for pesticides in close cooperation with member states in the EU," Url said. No one at the European Commission or Monsanto was immediately available for comment. A spokeswoman for IARC told Reuters the Lyon-based agency did not wish to comment at this point.

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