Frankenfish Fillet? I’ll have the salad instead.

Posted on January 25, 2016 by Aaron J. Freiwald

Imagine going to a restaurant.  The server comes over and tells you that the special of the evening is salmon.  “How is the salmon prepared,” you would ask, reasonably.  Now imagine the server responding, “We don’t give out that information, but don’t worry, it’s safe.”

You would probably order something else, right?  Quite understandably, you would want to know what they are putting on the fish you are going to put in your body.

Doesn’t it make perfect sense that you should also want to know what they are putting in the salmon?  I sure do.

That’s why I am concerned that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just before Thanksgiving approved the sale and consumption of genetically modified (GM) salmon.  This is a big win for biotech companies, which have already injected genetically-modified technology into so many parts of the food-growing and food-making industries.

There are at least two main concerns about GM salmon, no different than with other genetically-engineered agricultural products.  The first concern is whether the product really is safe.  The second is whether the product should be labeled accurately.

Is the Fish Safe?

The FDA has now declared an answer to the first question, proclaiming GM salmon safe for consumption. For the FDA, the lack of convincing scientific evidence that GM salmon is unsafe for human consumption is good enough to declare that it is safe.

This is lousy logic, but that is the way the FDA works.  The kind of scientific research that could document the real health concerns about GM salmon takes a lot of time and a lot of money, money that just isn’t available from public or private sources.   The biotech industry proclaims that the gene-altered fish is safe and it doesn’t seem to matter that these companies have an obvious financial interest in saying so.

The fact is we really don’t know whether GM fish is safe.   There hasn’t been enough time to study long-term human health effects.  The hard science and research just hasn’t been done.

Should it be labeled accurately?

Beyond the health concerns, there is something different and especially scary about GM salmon.  In addition to the substantial and unresolved public health concerns about so many genetically-modified organisms (GMO), such as GM soy and corn, there are very real concerns about introducing GM salmon to the wild.

The particular way in which GM salmon is engineered at the level of its DNA leads to the fish growing faster.  This means that the fish can reach maturity, and a size and weight suitable for harvesting, at a much faster rate.  Although the plan is to raise these genetically-mutated fish in domestic aqua-farms, isn’t it possible that some might get out and find their way into nearby rivers or the ocean?  The GM fish are supposed to be engineered to be reproductively sterile, but, well, has anyone seen Jurassic Park?  Doesn’t nature have its way in the end?

If any GM salmon did escape a hatchery and mix with other wild fish, there would be no stopping the genetic alteration from spreading throughout the salmon population.  We don’t know what the long-term impact will be on native fish.  We don’t know what effect there will be on the natural food supply for these fish or on other aspects of the salmon’s ecosystem.

As long as there is a question as to the potential health effects from genetically-altering salmon, there simply is no sound basis to oppose labeling the fish for what it is.  Last year, Americans consumed, on average, almost 2.5 pounds of salmon.  That’s a lot of fish.
According to the Center for Food Safety, more than 90 percent of Americans favor labeling of GM foods.  Yet when the FDA approved genetically-modified salmon, the agency also declared that it would not require labeling.  Instead, the FDA said labeling would be voluntary.

The movement to label foods has grown impressively in the last decade.  Food packaging now has much more detail about nutritional content, so that for people who want to know, and need to know about food allergies or whether something is gluten free, that information is available.  People want to know, too, if their food is genetically-altered.

If there is nothing to hide about GM salmon, then there is no good reason to hide the fact that the fish is indeed genetically modified.   Until individuals organize to require state legislatures to pass GM labeling laws, we will just have to ask before buying GM fish.

For now though: “I think I will have the salad special, instead.”