California has made recent headlines when the state’s Assembly Health Committee approved a bill, known as The Consumers Right To Know Act (A88), that would require labeling of genetically engineered (GE) salmon if it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Last September, the FDA held meetings over several days to discuss the safety of GE salmon. However, in papers submitted shortly before the FDA meetings, the agency made clear that GE salmon, made by AquaBounty, is as safe as food from conventional salmon. The agency proposed, without actually deciding, to approve GE salmon. If approved, because GE salmon is regarded by FDA as “safe,” no labeling would be required.
California’s Assemblymember Jared Huffman begs to differ. Genetically engineered salmon could pose serious risks to wild populations of salmon, many of which are currently threatened or endangered, provides a fact sheet released by Assemblymember’s office. “Genetically engineered seafood has huge implications for the health of our oceans and the future of our fish supply,” also said Dr. George Leonard, aquaculture director at Ocean Conservancy, a cosponsor of the bill, in a press release in January. Indeed, it is “acknowledge[d] that 5% of the genetically engineered fish could remain fertile and be able to mate with wild populations if they escape. Each year millions of farmed salmon escape and pose threats to wild populations through spread of disease and competition,” the Assemblymember Huffman’s fact sheet advises. And Huffman says, research indicates overwhelmingly that people want to know what they are eating.
“We require labels on all types of foods, such as foods grown organically, so this is consistent with California’s longstanding policies of providing consumers the information they need and deserve,” said Assemblymember Huffman in a January press release. According to the press release, California currently has laws prohibiting the spawning, incubation, or cultivation of transgenic fish species, but has no laws requiring consumers be informed about whether or not salmon sold in California is genetically engineered.
AquaBounty Technologies, the maker of GE salmon (a.k.a. AquAdvantage), opposes the proposed bill. In response to a request for comment from GMO Journal, Ronald L. Stotish, Ph.D., of AquaBounty released a statement stating that “[t]he California legislation proposal by Huffman is based upon false and misleading statements and is contrary to FDA label policy.” Rather than labeling AquAdvantage as “GE salmon,” Stoitish said that “AquaBounty believes the product should be labeled ‘Atlantic salmon.’” The company is concerned that labeling its product may mislead the consumer. “The bottom line on labeling is that it must be truthful and in not misleading to the consumer.” Interestingly, “AquaBounty does however support voluntary branding by the farmers who grow our salmon, which could identify the environmentally ‘friendly’ attributes of this product.”
Many groups ranging from animal welfare and environmental groups to commercial and recreational fisheries associations and food retailers have voiced opposition to GE salmon. In addition to threatening the wild salmon population and the natural food chain, concerns were also raised about the quality of safety tests performed. Assemblymember Huffman pointed out in the January press release that “[s]erious questions … exist about public health and the safety of consuming genetically engineered salmon due to the lack of publicly available research or a comprehensive national regulatory framework to address food safety concerns regarding genetically engineered seafood.”
The bill is currently in the Assembly Appropriations Committee and will head to the Assembly floor next week for full consideration.