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George Leonard

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Consumer Choice and Genetically Engineered Fish

Posted: 05/24/11 03:40 PM ET

Californians can afford to be choosy eaters and supermarkets know it. They cater to their demanding shoppers, as they well should. In Santa Cruz, my small hometown, there are more than 20 independent grocery stores. Walk into any one and you can find clearly labeled organic produce, free range chicken and hormone-free beef. Even the more traditional foods are all clearly labeled for calories and fat content, along with a full list of ingredients. There's one glaring exception: labels for genetically engineered foods. Unlike much of the rest of the world, the United States does not require labeling of food made with corn, soy and canola that have had their genes redesigned in the laboratory to grow faster, be resistant to weed killer or even to produce their own substances that repel pests.

Right now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering whether to approve an engineered version of farmed salmon, which would be the first genetically engineered (GE) animal for human consumption. FDA approval could come soon and all signals suggest the agency is not likely to require the product to be labeled, despite the nearly 400,000 Americans who petitioned the agency to not approve the fish, and to label this new, largely untested food source if it does. Public polls consistently show that nearly 90% want labeling so they can decide for themselves or their families on whether to support this new method of food production. Nearly half of the public would rather not eat genetically engineered fish at all. While salmon might be the first GE animal, it is likely not the last. Genetically engineered trout and tilapia are predicted to be the next species on the horizon. Other GE animals, like pigs and cows, are arguably not far behind.

Like 13 other states, California is out in front of this pending federal decision, advancing a bill to require any genetically engineered fish sold in California to be clearly labeled. Assembly Bill 88, championed by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Marin, passed the Assembly Committee on Health earlier this month with broad support from the fishing industry, conservation organizations, progressive seafood businesses and consumer safety organizations. But it is sure to meet resistance from the traditional food industry and biotechnology sector as it moves through the approval process, continuing this week in Sacramento at an Appropriations hearing.

California wouldn't be the first to adopt a labeling law. Alaska approved similar legislation in 2005. It was an effort to both inform consumers and protect Alaska's iconic and tasty, wild salmon and salmon fishermen from disaster if any of these so-called "frankenfish" were to escape into the wild. Scientific research clearly shows that escaped GE fish can undermine wild fish through competition for food, mates, and habitat. Like Alaska, California should be similarly concerned that escaped genetically engineered salmon could threaten our wild salmon, which are only now showing some signs of recovery from recent historical lows. For the first time in four years, we will have wild California salmon on store shelves this summer. But our struggling fishermen could be subjected to market confusion resulting from unlabeled genetically engineered salmon alongside our state's "real McCoy."

A labeling law would be good for commercial fishermen and for our state's aquaculture industry too. It will allow consumers to support responsible forms of fish farming, and steer clear of risky technology and food products. California's aquaculture industry doesn't rely on genetically engineered fish, as the legislature banned the practice in waters of our state in 2003. AB 88 will thus help distinguish sustainably-farmed California fish from genetically-engineered fish coming from elsewhere and help build a brand and reputation for California grown seafood to complement our state's wild fisheries.

Labels help us make informed food choices every day. Californians are known for their discerning taste and deserve the right to continue to be eco- and health- conscious "foodies." But to do so, the state legislature should make sure the industry reveals what's at the fish counter before it ends up on our plate.