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FDA Debates Labels for Genetically Engineered Fish

Hearings Held on Proposals for Sale of Genetically Engineered Salmon

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 22, 2010 -- A new, genetically modified salmon soon may be sold in U.S. supermarkets. Whether consumers will know what it is they are buying is a separate question.

The FDA concluded its second day of hearings Tuesday on AquAdvantage salmon, which, if approved for sale, will become the first genetically engineered animal product available to consumers. Proponents of the new fish, which has been modified to grow at twice the rate of conventional Atlantic salmon, say that it is safe and in no significant way different from its natural counterpart.

“There are no direct or indirect safety hazards,” said Richard Stotish, PhD, president and CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, Inc., the salmon's producer. “Every organic ... measure investigated over the last 15 years falls within the range of characteristics ordinarily found in Atlantic salmon.”

Not everyone agreed. During the public comment period of the meeting, several speakers criticized the limited amount of data on which to base safety claims.

“There are lots of gaps in what we know about this product,” said Patricia Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Citing high levels of hormones found in the AquAdvantage salmon compared to conventionally raised salmon and its unknown impact on consumer health, Lovera said “the science isn't finished. Consumers have concerns about these hormones. They have concerns, and these concerns are justified.”

The safety of the new fish was an unavoidable subject at the meeting. However, the purpose of the public discussion was to determine how it should be labeled if it is approved for sale.

According to FDA officials, food labels are not required to disclose how a particular food was manufactured, unless the manufacturing process alters the food's characteristics.

“If Brussels sprouts were made to taste like strawberries, the FDA would likely require labeling” to alert consumers, said Abigail Brandel, JD, a lawyer in the FDA's Office of Chief Counsel.

But if, as AquaBounty officials and others claim, the AquAdvantage salmon is in no significant way different from conventional salmon, then the FDA would have no obligation -- or authority -- to make clear to shoppers that the new product was genetically engineered.

Food labels, Brandel said, are meant to convey “information about the characteristics of the food itself rather than the means of production.”

Lovera, as well as other proponents of a label indicating “genetically engineered,” argued that consumers have a desire and a right to know where their food comes from.

“Every trend in the food industry says that consumers want more information, not less,” said Lovera. Buying genetically engineered foods “is a critical issue for consumers to decide for themselves.”

For the next 60 days, the FDA will be collecting public comments prior to making their decision. However, the labeling issue will be rendered moot if the agency deems the AquAdvantage salmon unfit for retail markets. No label will be needed for a fish that consumers won't be able to buy.

SOURCES: Public Hearing on the Labeling of Food Made from AquAdvantage Salmon, Sept. 21, 2010, Rockville, Md.Richard Stotish, PhD, president and CEO, AquaBounty Technologies, Inc.Patricia Lovera, assistant director, Food & Water Watch.Abigail Brandel, JD, Office of Chief Counsel, FDA.

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