The issue of genetically engineered (GE) food, in particular salmon, will once again make its way back to the plates of Oregonians. The labeling of mutated food was proposed in 2002 on Measure 27, but was also rejected by Oregon voters. GE is the direct human manipulation of an organism’s genes or DNA, usually through the insertion of a gene from a different species to create a desired result. Americans have been eating GE plants since the 1990s, but many other countries have rejected the products or at the very least, require labeling.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently reviewing a petition by AquaBounty, a biotechnology company, to approve the first GE animal for food consumption: an Atlantic salmon with antifreeze genes from the ocean pout and growth genes from Chinook salmon. The end product, patented “AquAdvantage Salmon,” grows twice as fast as natural salmon.
The AquAdvantage fish will consist of sterilized females raised in Panama so in case they escape or some turn out to be fertile, they won’t threaten natural varieties. The warm waters of South America would kill the fish. Critics say that the salmon may be contained at first, but overtime they may be raised elsewhere. After Panama, the fish would be shipped back to U.S. supermarkets.
“We would not carry it and we’re actively educating our consumers about GE foods. We’d like to see them labeled and the safety of them tested,” said Jeff Watson, store manager at Life Source.
Although there is currently no timeline for the FDA to make a decision, the agency has an open window for public comments regarding labeling the GE salmon, until November 22nd.
“It’s a very scary thing that they might bring it to the marketplace without labeling it,” said Watson, adding that the store would avoid the transgenic fish by getting to know their suppliers.
He said that organic food has to be certified, whereas GE food and food grown using pesticides does not. “You should have a license to use that! It’s an interesting dynamic.”
Rick North, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility’s project director for the Campaign for Safe Food, is concerned over the risks of AquAdvantage salmon.
“We don’t think they have been demonstrated safe. The science on this is totally inadequate. What’s amazing is that the samples were very small. For one particular test, they only tested six salmons,” he said. “Even scientists who know what happens don’t know what else happens. You can genetically engineer a particular trait [like growth] but they don’t know what else happens.”
His health concerns regarding GE foods range from allergens to cancer, which have increased in the past ten to fifteen years since they’ve been available.
“Are they contributing to allergenicity? The rates have increased substantially but they’re not labeled, of course, so we don’t know. A number of animal studies are pointing to problems [including] reproductive problems, but there’s not an absolute guarantee that if it happens in mice it happens in humans. Our stance is ‘better be safe than sorry.’ There’s enough evidence out there to give us concern.”
Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food and Water Watch, said that growth hormones added to animals might cause health problems for people. She said there might also be nutritional differences in the AquAdvantage salmon and possibly new allergens, as well as environmental risks.
“They propose to raise the fish eggs in Canada, take them to Panama to grow, then bring the fish product here. It doesn’t seem like a green project. And big, hungry, fast growing fish eat other fish,” she said.
Lovera has been been following the approval process closely, and she said the FDA chose to label the fish as a “veterinary drug” because that makes the approval process easier. “They can keep more information secret,” she said, adding that the data made available to the public was very limited.
“This product is considered a veterinary drug because the piece of DNA that is added to the salmon affects the structure and function of the animal and that’s the definition of a drug, like clindamycin or penicillin,” said Siobhan DeLancey, FDA Office of Public Affairs agent.
She added, “We do not do our own independent testing. The burden of proof is on the company itself to prove that their product is safe and effective. Before we make a decision, we will look at public comments and comments from [the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee].”
Lovera thinks the FDA should gather its own data and that the agency should be taking public comments on the approval of GE fish rather than asking for public input on labeling.
“This is our chance to get them to not approve it. Communicate with members of Congress, the President, to stop this process. Lots of companies want to get [GE animals out]. They want to get this first one out of the way. Behind the fish there’s a proposal for GE pig.”