“Is your salmon going to come with a side of growth hormones?”
That’s the headline of an activist campaign spearheaded by the Environmental Working Group and the Center for Food Safety aimed at garnering signatures on an e-petition to the Food and Drug Administration to stop the agency’s imminent approval of a variety of farm-raised salmon bioengineered to grow faster than its wild cousins.
The statement is wrong on several levels—blatantly so.
Calling the GE salmon “dangerous and unnecessary,” the petition demands that FDA “conduct further assessments of the environmental impact and potential health and food safety risks of AquaBounty’s genetically engineered salmon.” That implies that there are food-safety, public health or environmental issues that might be uncovered, if only the government would require more “testing.”
Now, what would those tests consist of? How can food-safety issues be identified in advance? If that were possible, we’d never experience any food-borne illness—ever—excepting those outbreaks due to negligence or sabotage, which is rarely the case. Most food-safety problems are uncovered after the fact, not in the lab. And the majority of them occur despite state-of-the-art preventive measures already in place.
So more time on task in some lab somewhere won’t address any (alleged) food-safety threats posed by farmed salmon.
Second, the question of whether farmed salmon—bioengineered or conventionally raised—is unnecessary. No, it’s not necessary, as long as people worldwide stop eating it, and if physicians and nutritionists stop recommending that people dump red meat and switch to “healthy seafood.” As long as the world’s burgeoning population collectively decides to forego eating salmon, then no—we don’t need to worry about aquaculture.
Those are all pretty big “ifs,” however.
The hidden motive
All that noise is really a smokescreen for the real issue with which anti-GM activists punch people in the gut, and that’s the Frankenfoods claim. It all comes down to fomenting vague fears about this “unknown food,” this scary “transgenic animal” that mad scientists, working in tandem with greedy capitalists, are planning to unleash on unsuspecting consumers.
“[FDA] is on track to approve AquaBounty AquaAdvantave transgenic salmon—the first genetically engineered animal intended as food for humans,” the anti GM petition stated. “This new hybrid salmon will combine DNA from Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout. There’s no proof that eating these genetically engineered salmon is safe. What we do know is the fish will produce enough growth hormones year-round to grow at twice their natural rate.”
That scare tactic then leads directly to the labeling issue, which wouldn’t even exist of there weren’t some “danger” lurking inside those packages of bioengineered salmon.
The message is plain and simple: Be afraid, be very afraid of this unknown, unproven, unnecessary new transgenic food product.
Activists don’t want bioengineered foods or ingredients to be labeled so consumers can make an informed choice—oh sure, that’s what they say. But the real goal is to force mandatory labeling of GM foods so people can avoid them.
“So which salmon will you be buying in the supermarket—salmon from nature or from a lab?” the petition asks. “You won't know!”
Of course, what isn’t discussed with nearly the same urgency is the fact that USDA already requires that fresh fish be labeled as wild-caught or farm-raised. No, no, no—this is about danger!!
But despite all the hype about environmental damage and some flimsy “wild vs. farmed food” controversy, make no mistake: The goal here is demonizing biotechnology, no matter how or where it’s applied.
The larger food industry has two choices: Sit back and decide, “This is the seafood sector’s fight" (or pretend it’s limited to AquaBounty vs. the activists), or step forward and begin the process to institute labeling of foods with bioengineered ingredients in a proactive way.
As has been stated in this space more times than I care to count, if biotech is based on sound science—which it is—and if GM foods are safe to eat—which they are—then what’s stopping the nation’s food producers and processors from stating exactly that?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.