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Jean Halloran

Jean Halloran

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California Must Label Genetically Engineered Fish

Posted: 05/24/11 03:00 PM ET

Today, Assembly Member Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), decided to postpone a vote on his bill, AB 88, The Consumer Right To Know Act, which would require the labeling of genetically engineered fish sold in California. Action on the bill, which did not have enough votes in the California Assembly to pass this week, will take place in January, awaiting FDA action. The FDA is deliberating whether or not it will approve, for the first time, genetically engineered (GE) animals into the food supply, labeled or not. Consumers Union has argued that GE fish should not be allowed into the food supply, and if it is, that it should be labeled. California residents who want to weigh in with their Assembly member can do so here.

Looming over consumers is the likelihood that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will approve the raising and selling of GE salmon--without labeling--in the very near future. The engineered fish grow to maturity twice as fast as normal salmon, thus potentially greatly increasing the profits of salmon farmers in countries such as Chile, but also threatening to contaminate wild salmon worldwide.

Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, opposed putting the salmon on the market at an FDA hearing last fall on the grounds that the agency's safety assessment was woefully inadequate. One of the most critical issues for FDA to assess is the potential for the GE fish to cause increased allergic responses, since many people are already allergic to fish.

Unfortunately, FDA allowed Aquabounty, the company developing the GE salmon, to declare that there was no increase in allergy-causing potential based on data from exactly six engineered fish--even when the data from those fish suggested there might be a problem.

At the very least, California should require a label on the GE fish so there can be post-market monitoring--so if people who have never been allergic to fish before start having allergic responses to this salmon, there will be a way for them, and their doctors, and food retailers, and FDA, to link these responses to their cause.

But there are other reasons to label as well. Some fish scientists have modeled what might happen if the GE fish accidentally escape from captivity, something that is common in conventional salmon farming. Their model predicted that a fish engineered with growth hormone could quickly cause the extinction of all wild fish of the same species.

Finally, there is the interesting fact that the genetic material introduced into this salmon to facilitate it growing faster comes from a fish called ocean pout, a member of the eel family. Eel is a prohibited food in several religious traditions, namely Jewish kosher and Muslim halal cooking. What may observant Jews and Muslims think about this fish? And how will they feel if they have no way to tell it apart from conventional salmon? What of bagels and lox?

Whatever their motives, consumers have a right to know what they are eating and to decide for themselves what to put on their plates.