Label genetically modified salmon

Salmon hold sacred status in the Pacific Northwest, literally for the people of the region’s Indian nations. But the rest of us, specifically those who fish for salmon and those who serve them at family meals, also regard the fish as part of our heritage.

So it’s not hard to understand the skepticism and outright opposition to salmon that has been genetically modified. The moniker some have given it, “Frankenfish,” gives a good idea of its lack of acceptance.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of genetically engineered salmon, the first time an animal, rather than a plant, has been approved as safe for human consumption.

A Massachusetts-based company, AquaBounty has developed an Atlantic salmon that, through the introduction of genes from an eel-like fish and growth hormone from a chinook salmon, grows large enough for sale in a year and a half rather than the typical three years.

The FDA, the Washington Post reported, said its decision was “based on sound science and a comprehensive review” that the genetically engineered salmon was as a safe as Atlantic salmon to eat and was not discernibly different in terms of its nutritional value.

But at the same time the FDA said it would not require the salmon to carry a label that identified it as being genetically modified, claiming that it can’t require additional labeling unless there’s a substantial nutritional difference between the genetically modified product and its nonmodified counterpart.

That decision to approve AquaBounty’s salmon without a labeling requirement met appropriate criticism, including from U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

“Wild seafood from Washington and Alaska are more sustainable than frankenfish, and our consumers have a right to know where their fish come from,” Sen. Cantwell said.

The House had an opportunity earlier this summer to reject legislation that could now pre-empt any mandatory state or local labeling requirements for GMO foods, in favor of a voluntary state-administered system. The bill passed the House, with Washington state’s delegation voting on a party line; Republicans for, Democrats, including Reps. Rick Larsen and Suzan DelBene, against. Alaska’s Young, despite his long opposition to GMO salmon, voted for the less-stringent voluntary system.

New legislation that would allow the FDA to require GMO labeling would give consumers the ability to make their own choice in the matter. Meanwhile, some retail outlets are making that choice. Costco, Whole Foods, Kroger (Fred Meyer) and others are refusing to sell the GMO salmon when it comes on the market.

The genetic alteration of our food has a history almost as old as agriculture itself as farmers and ranchers have bred and crossbred plants and animals for desirable traits, such as increased yields and better flavor. The difference now, reports a Q&A from National Geographic, is that science allows that crossbreeding to cross species, resulting in salmon with eel-fish genes that grow more quickly or lettuce that gets its vitamin C from of an introduced rat gene.

This is a relatively new science that holds promise but also potential harm to health and the environment.

AquaBounty is being required to raise its salmon in landlocked tanks to prevent any possible interbreeding with wild salmon. Aqua-Bounty has taken the further precaution of raising only sterile females.

The science of genetic engineering should be allowed to progress, as should the careful and considered review of its products. Labeling those products after they are approved has to be a part of the process.

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