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GE salmon labeling: Disclose, disclose, disclose!

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Salmon eggs. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Allowing the first genetically modified fish on the market is one thing. Purposefully hiding the fact on the label appears sneaky and dishonest.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is inviting public comment on whether or not makers of genetically engineered (GE) salmon should be required to label their salmon for what they are: genetically modified. The FDA has not yet approved AquaBounty Technologies’ salmon for grocery store shelves, but is poised to do so. Food Democracy Now! and other public advocacy groups have mobilized to stop the approval. The public hearing on labelling is right on the heels of hearings on approval of the fish for consumption. Both take place this month.

Will citizens and consumer health advocates be able to convince the FDA of their right to know what they’re buying? A poll by Consumer Reports found that 95 percent believe that “products made from genetically engineered animals should be labeled as such.”

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act designates rDNA, the genetic construct spliced into the fish's DNA, as a drug and places it under the FDA’s regulatory authority. The gene makes the salmon grow twice as fast as normal salmon.

“If it is approved, food made from AquAdvantage Salmon must, like all foods, bear an appropriate name and a label that is truthful and not misleading,” according to the FDA. 

Sounds straight-forward. So why isn’t disclosure a done deal?


As a nation with obesity (and related) health problems, we are officially encouraged to read labels and be aware of nutritional values and additives in foods that could be detrimental to our health. Several cities and states have pushed for more complete food ingredient disclosures to help people make wise food choices. The federal government also recently passed new rules requiring restaurants, drive-throughs and vending machine operators to list nutrient information on standard menu items.

Failure to disclose the first GE human food on labels is out-of-step with consumer rights and preferences. We simply don’t know how modifying a food's genes impacts human and environmental health. Those of us who pay attention to health and diseases want the option to reduce possible risks for ourselves and our families.

We’ve been through this labeling issue before. In the case of irradiated meat, a market flop by the way, marketers must include the radura icon on packaging. The radura is the international symbol for irradiation. That was a win for consumers. But we lost when it came to disclosure of rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, a synthetic growth hormone that increases milk production in cows.

Milk producers treating cows with rBST did not have to disclose the presence of the growth hormone because the FDA ruled “that there was no material difference between milk from rBST-treated cows and milk from non-rBST-treated cows...plaintiffs [consumer protection groups that petitioned for disclosure on labels] failed to show any evidence demonstrating a material difference between milk from rBST-treated cows and non-rBST-treated cows.” But consumers believed differently. In time, many shoppers abandoned brand-name milk for alternatives including organic milk and soy and rice milk. Today, most brand name milk marketers offer an alternate line of milk, one that is prominently labeled “rBST–free,” in order to win back consumers. 

As has become the norm, it is now the public’s obligation to prove suspected dangers from chemicals, foods and drugs through costly tests and litigation, rather than industry’s obligation to prove them safe.

To disclose or not to disclose: That is the question

The source of the labeling problem is the complex regulatory rules that benefit food marketers’ bottom line at the expense of the public’s right to know.

“The FDA cannot require labeling about production methods (i.e. genetic engineering) unless it is necessary to ensure that the labeling is not false or misleading,” according to the agency. “Another way of stating this point is that FDA cannot require labeling based solely on differences in the production process if the resulting products are not materially different due solely to the production process.”

Is the FDA aware that 6 of 10 polled Americans said they would not buy meat or milk products from genetically engineered animals or milk/milk products? That’s what Consumer Reports found. Sadly, without disclosure on the label, consumers won’t know if they are buying wild, sea-farmed or GE modified salmon raised on land in a tank.

According to AquaBounty, “Because salmon grown from AquAdvantage® eggs are nutritionally and biologically the same as any other Atlantic salmon the consumer purchases, there is no reason for it to be labeled as different.”

No reason? Yes, there is a reason. We want to know what we’re eating!

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (1 posted):

Mohamed on 09/18/2010 20:27:07
This is really bad and most consumers don't know about it. its going to be very hard to determine. I'm really thinking of going to vegetarian all together unless i can find the natural fish in Trader joes
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