Something Fishy: Difficulty Labeling Genetically Engineered Salmon

We may be one step closer to genetically modified salmon appearing in our food supply. Over the past three days, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held public hearings on genetically engineered (GE) salmon.

How will we as consumers be able to distinguish non-GE salmon from GE salmon?  The answer is simple, label GE salmon.  However, AquaBounty Technologies seeks to push its  genetically engineered “AquAadvantage” salmon through to market, sans labeling.

While there is questionable science in regards to safety of GE salmon, let us focus on labeling logistics.  The question remains, should labeling of GE salmon be mandatory? Most folks would love to see labels on GE salmon.  But our hands appear tied with respect to the law.

The FDA has five key principles, based on federal laws, applicable to food labeling of GE animals:

1)  The law prohibits labeling that is false.
2)  The law prohibits labeling that is misleading.
3)  The law allows voluntary labeling about production methods.
4)  The law requires that the label includes a name that describes the basic nature of the food.
5)  The FDA cannot require additional labeling about production methods unless it is necessary to ensure that the labeling is not false or misleading.

Let us see if we can make a case for labeling GE salmon within the bounds of the the FDA guidelines.

Labeling of Production Methods
Opponents may argue, while the production process of obtaining GE salmon versus salmon differ, the end product is the same.  Allegedly, their is no difference between flesh garnered from either GE salmon or salmon.  Sadly, the process of labeling production methods cannot be mandated.  The good news is that production method labeling is voluntary.  Wild caught salmon or farm raised salmon can be touted as such.  However, this still leaves GE salmon unchecked and unlabeled.

False or Misleading Labels
Would labeling GE salmon as just salmon provide false or misleading information?  AquaBounty has itself a dilemma here.  If the company says GE salmon is different than salmon, then it must label its product accordingly.  Its product must be differentiated from salmon.  However, If the company says GE salmon is the same thing as salmon, then what is the point of developing GE salmon in the first place?  Why not just stick with what nature has given us, non-genetically engineered salmon?

Describing Basic Nature of the Food
If we break GE salmon down to its bare essentials, namely its DNA, is GE salmon still really salmon?  GE salmon has genes from an eel-like ocean pout, which allows it to grow more rapidly than salmon.  This would make GE salmon no longer exclusive to the salmon genome, but a genetically engineered hybrid of salmon and ocean pout. The two cannot mate in the wild, but their genes can cross in a test tube.  The basic nature of the salmon has been altered.

Moving Forward
Can you think of strong arguments for labeling GE salmon within the of the FDA’s five key principles?  Perhaps our hands are not tied after all.  I’d be curious to hear your comments.  And I bet the FDA would love to hear your arguments too.  We have until November 22 to provide written comments to the FDA.

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.