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Genetically Engineered Salmon, Food Labeling, and You

As a conscientious eater, you care about what’s in your food and where it comes from. You may look at the calories and grams of fat in your favorite potato chips, or you might check to see if the crispy, sweet apples you place in your shopping cart were grown in Washington or Peru. Food labels can tell you so much—basic nutrition information, country-of-origin, whether a food is certified organic or certified Fair Trade—and that’s why they’re so important. They help us make healthy, sustainable choices.

Yet there’s some important information that you won’t find on food labels, including whether it contains genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. The FDA requires labels for genetically engineered food only when there is a "material difference" in the end product.

Surprised? It is astonishing, especially since polls consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Americans would like to be able to tell if the food they’re purchasing contains GE ingredients. A 2008 CBS News poll found that 87% of consumers wanted foods with GE ingredients labeled, and a CBS/New York Times poll found that 53% of consumers said they would not buy food that has been genetically engineered.

Attack of the Frankenfish

If ever there was a time to demand that GE foods be labeled, it's now! That's because despite widespread opposition (a recent poll shows 91% of Americans oppose GE animals), the FDA is in the process of approving AquAdvantage Salmon—the first GE animal intended for human consumption. Many environmental and consumer groups have joined to fight the approval of the “Frankenfish,” which has been genetically engineered to grow at twice the normal rate.  The Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, Consumers Union, and other organizations say GE fish pose serious threats to wild fish populations, ocean ecosystems, and human health.

GE salmon could devastate stocks of wild salmon, which already are on the Endangered Species List. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that a release of just sixty GE salmon into a wild population of 60,000 could lead to the extinction of the wild population in less than 40 fish generations. The human health impacts could be equally dangerous; the FDA's own tests reportedly found elevated levels of IGF-1 growth factor, a suspected carcinogen. Because transgenic fish may be more susceptible to disease than regular farmed fish, the amount of antibiotics given to transgenic fish may be higher, too—and farmed salmon already are given more antibiotics than any other livestock. The FDA has not conducted any long-term environmental or food safety studies.

Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union, says that GE salmon absolutely should be labeled if approved. “Recently certain drugs approved by FDA as safe have turned out to have unexpected health effects after they were widely used by consumers,” says Dr. Hansen. “It is essential to label a GE animal so that any unexpected effects will be recognized and consumer health protected.”

The executive director of the Center for Food Safety, Andrew Kimbrell, agrees. “Consumers want more information about the foods they buy and feed to their families, not less,” he said. “Should FDA decide to approve the AquAdvantage GE salmon despite overwhelming consumer opposition and potential threats to the environment, human health, and native salmon populations, we urge that clear, mandatory labeling be unconditional.”

Make your voice heard

Co-ops are playing an important part in making sure consumer opposition is being heard on a range of issues that affect the sustainable food system.  “We think it’s important that our members have the education to make more informed choices,” says Susan Stewart at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, which, like many co-ops around the country, provided its shoppers with information about the GE salmon issue and made it easy for them to sign petitions and send letters to the FDA and Congress.

Indeed, part of the core mission of co-ops is to promote education on sustainable food issues and to advocate for clear labeling that improves consumers' ability to make informed choices. “Co-ops act as agents of consumers,” says Goldie Caughlan, a nutrition educator at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. “They can be the collective voice of consumers, and can give consumers a way to take action on issues they really care about.”

So far, this collective voice is crying out loud and clear; in late September, by the time the FDA met about labeling GE salmon, nearly 172,000 consumers had submitted comments opposing its approval and demanding labeling.  Although the FDA is still on track to approve the AquAdvantage Frankenfish, our opinions matter and we need to keep the pressure on!

Visit www.ge-fish.org for more background information, updates, and ways to take action.

Tags: advocacy, gmos, salmon