I spent some time last week wading through literature on the first transgenic (GMO) animal going through the FDA approval process. It’s Aqua Bounty’s AquAdvantage Salmon. The AquAdvantage is a “domesticated” Atlantic Salmon with two “modifications”. One is a growth factor output gene from a wild Chinook Salmon; the other is a “promoter, the molecular “switch” from the antifreeze protein gene is used” (these quotes come directly from the Aqua Bounty website). This promoter overrides the growth factor turnoff switch to enable growth hormone to work in the fish 24 hours a day, 7 days a week instead of the three month time limit it has in wild Chinook Salmon.
For this week’s Good Food segment on the transgenic salmon debate we interviewed two scientists – Michael Hansen from the Consumer’s Union and Gregory Jaffe from the Center for Science in the Public Interest – to get as broad a range of opinion on the animal as possible. Due to the time constraints of our on-air segments, certain issues weren’t discussed. Three issues weren’t able to be fully fleshed out.
First of all, as a society have we had a full discussion about whether we feel we need transgenic animals to feed us? The focus on the AquAdvantage Salmon and the FDA’s expanded public comment period is basically giving us the opportunity as consumers to think about and discuss the pros and cons of going down a road which once built will be hard to close. In fact it may be too late. As discussed in the on-air interview, the comment period for the FDA (which ends April 26th) is purely for issues of food safety. Consumer and retail likes and dislikes are not part of the process for regulatory approval
And that brings me to issue two, the allergen load on us. Just sitting in the chair behind the mic at KCRW doing interviews every week for years I’ve heard myriad scientists, doctors and parents express concern about the increasing allergen reactivity in children. No one really knows why there is such a huge increase in asthma and other sensitivities. According to Hansen, the tests related to the possible allergenicity of the transgenic salmon were not as robust as some FDA committee members would have liked. This issue is another reason why our society needs to have discussion regarding transparency and labeling, which is my third concern.
We live in a polarized political environment that surrounds so many issues affecting the daily life of the American consumer. We hear the word democracy bandied about by all sides. I can’t really think of any personal right more important than making decisions on how we want to eat and feed our families. When you talk about taking responsibility for personal decisions shopping for what we put into our bodies is pretty much one of most basic daily tasks. We should be able to know where the food we opt to put in our shopping bags comes from and how it is “made”. Then we can make our own choice as consumers. When marketers hold back that information they are making the decisions for us.
Aqua Bounty Technologies will not be directly producing the farmed salmon and bringing it to market. They will be producing transgenic eggs for sale to fish farmers. Perhaps the farmers will label the fish on boxes that go to retail outlets. Will those retail outlets who decide to carry the fish let us know that these are transgenic animals?
I asked Jaffe if the genetically engineered fish would be required to have a label. He didn’t know the answer, but he did say the FDA has the authority to require labeling. Whether they require labeling on the whole fish, the individual steaks or allow no labeling at all remains to be seen.
Hear my conversation with Hansen and Jaffe below and click here to find out how you can send your comment to the FDA.