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Congrats Canada! You may become the first nation in the world to sell genetically modified animals as food.

That’s because the health ministry approved Mass.-based AquaBounty’s genetically engineered (GE) salmon as a safe food source for sale May 19. Dubbed “Frankenfish” by critics, AquAdvantage salmon are grown from eggs developed in Prince Edward Island and raised in land-based pens in Panama. AquAdvantage salmon promises to grow to market size twice as fast, requiring about a quarter of the feed than other farmed salmon. Proponents see this as reducing environmental impact while meeting increasing demand. Critics see it as a dangerous money grab setting a bad precedent.

From the Health Canada statement announcing the approval:

“GM [genetically modified] foods are becoming more common every day and are part of the regular diets of Canadians. GM foods that have been approved by Health Canada have been consumed in Canada for many years, and are safe and nutritious. Changes to the genes of plants and animals can improve food quality and production – for instance by reducing the need for pesticides, making crops resistant to drought, preventing bruising, or allowing foods to be grown more quickly.”

I’ll get back to that last sentence. First, some background. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually approved AquaAdvantage Salmon for sale last November, but ran into a wall of opposition, including a legal challenge filed by several environmental groups such as the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth. They claim the FDA does not have the authority to regulate GE animals based on a decades-old law used to regulate animal drugs and cosmetics. To wit, the FDA used the 1938 Food and Drug Cosmetic act to qualify the gene manipulation in GE salmon as an animal drug safe for human consumption.

Huh? As I’ve blogged before, this just seems like a ridiculous premise to be basing an important food safety issue potentially affecting millions of U.S. consumers.

So, the U.S. market may have to wait a bit longer for its shot at GE salmon than Canada. Unless there is another legal challenge in Canada. Ecology Action Centre in Halifax is currently appealing a federal court ruling against the centre’s previous suit challenging Canada’s approval of production of the eggs at a plant in PEI.

AquaBounty says it won’t have any market-ready salmon for a year.

Transparency and fairness

The issues surrounding GE salmon are many, but they generally center on transparency and fairness. Most critics want — at a minimum — mandatory labeling of all GE salmon, not to mention all GE foods. But the industry has fought this tooth and nail, claiming that it would unfairly bias consumer decisions because of the negative connotation widely associated with the genetically modified food industry.salmon comp

This has been borne out by several studies showing that despite scientists’ proclamations that GE foods are safe for human consumption, an overwhelming majority of consumers, up to two-thirds or more, do not trust the science. Not only do they think GE salmon isn’t safe, they also don’t think scientists have a clear understanding of all of the potential health risks. Not coincidentally, a majority of scientists in a poll by the Pew Research Center and U.S. members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggests 88% of scientists polled believe genetically modified foods are safe to eat, while only 37% of the U.S. public thinks it’s safe.

I am in the same camp. I don’t think enough long-term, independent research has ruled out all risks associated with ingesting this type of hormone. Consider that FDA approval is based on the agency’s analysis of the test results paid for and submitted by AquaBounty … not by an independent third-party group with no vested interest in the outcome. For reference, see page 16 of this Congressional Research Service report, noting concerns over the FDA review process. To me, this leaves too much room to force the results into pre-determined conclusions, and perhaps explains in part why there is so much general skepticism about safety.

As such, I think the transparency issue is paramount. If the FDA or Health Canada deem GE salmon safe, they should require all such products be clearly labeled. One would think that if AquaBounty wants to appear trustworthy, it would label its product to demonstrate it’s not hiding anything from customers.

Ah, but there’s the problem. AquaBounty is following Monsanto’s playbook, spending tons of money to prevent labeling. Both the FDA and Health Canada claim that labeling is not necessary because “scientific research” suggests that there will be no “material difference” in the nutritional profiles between GE products and a non-GE counterpart. The FDA is offering GE producers like AquaBounty the option of voluntarily labeling the product, which is code for “You don’t have to do this.”

Here’s the fairness issue. Consumers wishing to buy organic pancake mix can look at the product to see a seal indicating the producer has paid a fee to have the product inspected and certified, along with a label that clearly indicates all of the ingredients. Hell, the same is true for a box of non-organic cookies. Salt, sugar, fat grams. All of that stuff must be listed somewhere. So why shouldn’t AquaBounty be compelled to tell the public that a hormone from an ocean pout (a completely different species) has been used in the “manufacturing” of that salmon fillet? Even if you can argue that doesn’t change the nutritional profile, it sure changes the ingredient list that yielded the end product.

Several big-name stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Safeway and Kroger have pledged to not sell GE salmon.

It’s a slippery slope. Approving GE salmon using antiquated animal drug legislation or whatever other rationale without a fully thorough, third-party, long-term analysis is bad enough. Allowing AquaBounty to hide its product in a veil of secrecy, deliberately misinforming consumers, is egregious.


Top photo credit: AquaBounty