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Will genetically modified salmon be labelled?

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Nathan Rice | May 26, 2011 10:20 AM

Care to know whose genes are hidden in your salmon fillet? If the federal government approves genetically modified salmon for public consumption, there will be no telling if your seafood dinner's DNA has been doctored -- unless states demand it.

Four states -- California, Oregon, Vermont and Alaska -- are preparing for a federal approval of genetically modified (GM) salmon by considering legislation that would require labels for the fish. Ten other states are also looking at labeling all GM foods, from corn to fish, though similar attempts have failed repeatedly in the past. Alaska is the only state that currently requires a label for any modified salmon (the new state bill would strengthen a 2005 law), but none can be sold until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives the go-ahead.

Salmon“The fact that you see these measures popping up is kind of a response to the vacuum in Washington,” Jared Huffman, a Democratic California State Assemblyman told The Washington Post. Huffman is sponsoring a bill requiring labels for GM salmon in the state. The FDA says it can't require labeling on a genetically altered food that is not "materially" different from its source, a determination that the agency made for the altered salmon, as well GM plants, from corn to soybeans.

Opponents of labeling, including the agricultural industry, are rightly concerned about the economic impact of having to label GM products. As The Washington Post reports:

Since the European Union rolled out the first labeling requirements for genetically modified foods in 1997, at least 15 countries have mandated it. In many of those countries, manufacturers have stopped using genetically modified ingredients in their foods because they fear the required label will hurt sales.

Last September, FDA declared the genetically altered Atlantic salmon safe to eat, setting it up to become the first GM animal to be approved for consumption in the U.S. Dubbed AquAdvantage by Aqua Bounty Technologies, Inc., the fish contains a growth hormone from Chinook salmon and an "antifreeze gene" from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish that grows year round. The newfangled salmon can grow twice as fast as its natural counterpart.

In response to FDA's statement last year, Alaska senators Mark Begich, D, and Lisa Murkowski, R, introduced a bill to require GM salmon labels nationwide, and another to ban the fish entirely, citing concerns that the cheaper GM fish would undercut Alaska's salmon fishing industry.

Critics of AquAdvantage are also anxious about consumer health, pointing to FDA's review of the engineered fish as an animal drug rather than a food, which means company data used in the decision are not made public. Despite signing off on the safety of the fish, FDA found that Aqua Bounty's own studies of the potential for allergic reactions were inadequate due to too-small sample sizes and inappropriate statistics.

The potential for engineered salmon to escape farms and contaminate already-threatened wild salmon runs tops environmental concerns. A Duke University study published in the journal Science called the FDA review of the fish lacking, claiming that the broader health and environmental impacts were not addressed.

“The approval of genetically modified salmon will set an important precedent for other transgenic animals intended for human consumption,” said Martin Smith, associate professor of environmental economics at Duke and co-author of the study, in a press release. “It’s essential that FDA establishes an approval process that assesses the full portfolio of impacts to ensure that such decisions serve society’s best interests.”

Advocates of the doctored fish, as well as some scientists, see it as a solution to overfishing of wild stocks and point out that the AquAdvantage fish would be farmed on land near a river in Panama, minimizing the risk of escape into wild populations. They say that nearly all of the fish would be sterile and unable to reproduce with wild fish.

No doubt the real-world risks and benefits of the controversial salmonid will take a while to sort out. Meanwhile, consumers might like to know if their salmon dinner is a product of millions of years of evolution -- or the laboratory.

For more of HCN's coverage of genetically modified crops, see:

Biotech beet-down

USDA to farmers: Plant genetically modified crops!

Organic farmers prepare to ward off genetic trespassers

Nathan Rice is an HCN intern.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Andrea Pokrzywinski

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