Meet Frankenfish

November 16th, 2010 by Andrea Bennett

Why you may not know you're buying genetically modified fish once it hits the shelves.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

A few months back, we drew your attention to an Atlantic salmon called the AquAdvantage, the first genetically modified animal on our shores likely to be approved for human consumption by the FDA. The fish, created by the company AquaBounty, has been given a gene from the eel-like ocean pout – which allows it to grow twice as fast as a traditional Atlantic salmon – and also contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon. A popular moniker has since emerged for the super salmon: Frankenfish.

Even with FDA approval, the fish likely won’t hit your neighborhood fishmonger for a while. Still, the issue keeping consumer groups up at night is this: If the first example of AquAdvantage sits tantalizingly fresh before you at the supermarket, will you even know it’s been genetically engineered?

As of now, the answer is likely no. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently requires labeling of genetically engineered food if the resulting product: has significantly different nutritional properties, includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present (e.g., a peanut protein in a soybean product) or contains a toxicant beyond acceptable limits. And it also does not require labeling with regards to the production process unless a "material difference" – such as texture or nutrient content – results. So far, the FDA has not found any such differences that would require the AquaBounty salmon to be labeled separately from an ordinary salmon.

Bruce Chassy, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, said that while there doesn’t appear to be grounds for mandating a label for the salmon, a voluntary labeling program could guide consumers if they’re prepared to bear the higher costs that verification and other expenses would add. The FDA has guidelines dating from 2001 in place for such voluntary labels, and Chassy also noted that the FDA may wind up with a labeling program similar to what it settled on for milk. It would allow fish producers to label their salmon as non-genetically engineered as long as they carried a disclaimer indicating the FDA's position that the engineered fish was no different than an ordinary salmon.

Elliot Entis, founder of Waltham, Mass.-based AquaBounty, also supports voluntary labeling by producers who want to communicate that their fish was not genetically engineered. But he remains opposed to mandatory labeling; Entis recently told the Herald Tribune that required labels would be unfair to his company because it would be interpreted by consumers as a warning.

A Wall Street Journal article, written around the time that the FDA opened the issue up for 60 days of public comment, noted that while AquAdvantage may seem foreign, genetically engineered foods are already becoming common elsewhere. For instance, China last year declared that certain strains of genetically modified (GM) rice and corn were safe to produce and consume. South Africa grows GM corn. Brazil and Pakistan grow GM soybeans and corn. India has been growing GM cotton for several years. And scientists at the University of Guelph in Canada have created a genetically modified pig that can better digest and process phosphorus, reducing production costs. Enviropig, which some critics have already dubbed "Frankenswine," is still under review by two Canadian regulatory agencies, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

In the meantime, you have until Nov. 22 to make comments, and you can get info on how to submit here. So are you in favor of mandatory or voluntary labeling – or neither? And if you’re in favor of voluntary labeling, would you pay extra for the info?