The Debate Over Genetically Engineered Food

August 16th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Questions over FDA approval and food labeling practices.

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The Responsibility Project

Grumblings over an unfair review process have recently surfaced with regards to the FDA’s delay in approving the production of AquAdvantage, the first genetically engineered fish for human consumption. A scientist formerly on the government committee to assess the safety of the fish claims that the committee failed to consider the fish’s potential benefits and only focused on the risks, resulting in an unbalanced and unscientific process.

But while FDA approval remains in limbo, a larger question looms: if the AquAdvantage is approved and 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. 

Do you think the AquAdvantage should earn FDA approval? If so, would you be in favor of mandatory or voluntary labeling of the fish?

(A portion of this story was previously published as “Meet Frankenfish” on The Responsibility Project on 11/16/10)