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Outraged Republican Senator Vows to Block Appointment of FDA Commissioner Over GMO Salmon

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Dr. Robert Califf, the Obama administration's choice for the next commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was easily approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Tuesday, but the candidate's approval by the full Senate faces an unlikely hurdle: fish.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is threatening to block Califf over the FDA's approval of genetically engineered salmon, or GMO salmon.

In November, the FDA approved the first genetically engineered food animal. AquaBounty’s GMO salmon—dubbed “Frankenfish” by opponents—is genetically altered to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. The FDA did not require the product to carry a label, making it difficult for consumers to distinguish between non-GMO and GMO salmon.

Murkowski made it clear she is not happy with the FDA's decision. According to The New York Times, "She said she would put a hold on Dr. Califf’s candidacy because the FDA approved a genetically engineered salmon for consumption days after she questioned him on the topic at his confirmation hearing in November."

Califf, a former Duke University researcher and cardiologist, is currently the deputy commissioner of the FDA.

"If they are trying to get my support, they sure fumbled that ball," she said after the Senate committee approved the nomination on a voice vote.

Murkowski comes from a major salmon-producing state and has been adamantly opposed to GMO salmon. Here is the senator speaking on the Senate floor in November against the fish.

“I will not stand back and just watch these genetically engineered creatures be placed in our kitchens and on our tables without a fight," she said in a statement following the after FDA’s approval of GMO salmon. "I am furious about this decision, but now I must do everything I can to make sure it is labeled—consumers have a right to know what it is they are eating.”

Besides threatening to block Califf's confirmation, Murkowski "helped insert language last month in a massive federal spending bill, directing FDA to prevent the AquaBounty product from reaching the U.S. market until regulators finalize labeling guidelines. It also tells the agency to spend 'not less than $150,000' on that effort," The Washington Post reported.

On Tuesday, the senator said she wants to make sure FDA knows that "voluntarily labeling is not adequate. I’m going to be pushing for further conversations with Dr. Califf on this."

She also tweeted: "I look forward to having conversations w/FDA on Frankenfish, but I intend to block Califf’s confirmation until these issues are resolved."

As it happens, Califf's confirmation also has another roadblock: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The Democratic presidential candidate has threatened to block the nominee due to Califf's ties to industry. According to the Associated Press:

In 2006, Califf founded the Duke University Clinical Research Institute, a contract research group that has conducted studies for virtually all of the world's largest drugmakers. Government disclosure forms show that Califf received more than $29,000 in consulting fees, travel, meals and other payments from drugmakers in 2014.

Sanders has said that the country needs an FDA commissioner who will stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and that Califf is "not that person."

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.