FDA rules won't require salmon labels
As the Food and Drug Administration considers whether to approve genetically modified salmon, one thing seems certain: Shoppers staring at fillets in the seafood department will find it tough to pick out the conventional fish from the one created with genes from another species.
Despite a growing public demand for more information about how food is produced, that won't happen with the salmon because of idiosyncracies embedded in federal regulations.
The FDA says it cannot require a label on the genetically modified food once it determines that the altered fish is not "materially" different from other salmon - something agency scientists have said is true.
Perhaps more surprising, conventional food makers say the FDA has made it difficult for them to boast that their products do not contain genetically modified ingredients.
The labeling question has emerged as the FDA determines whether to approve the fish, an Atlantic salmon known as AquAdvantage that grows twice as fast as its natural counterpart. The decision carries great weight because, while genetically modified agriculture has been permitted for years and engineered crops are widely used in processed foods, this would be the first modified animal allowed for human consumption in the United States.The AquAdvantage salmon has been given a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish, and a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon.
'The public wants to know'
Consumer advocates say they worry about labeling for genetically engineered beef, pork and other fish, which are lining up behind the salmon for federal approval.
"The public wants to know and the public has a right to know," said Marion Nestle, a professor in the Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health Department at New York University. "I think the agency has discretion, but it's under enormous political pressure to approve [the salmon] without labeling."
The debate will be taken up this week, with an advisory committee meeting Sunday and Monday on whether to allow the modified fish, and a separate panel meeting Tuesday on whether the fish should be labeled. The panels will offer recommendations to the FDA commissioner, who will decide both matters.
The biotechnology industry is opposed to mandatory labeling, saying it will only bewilder a public that is not well informed about genetic engineering.
"Extra labeling only confuses the consumer," said David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "It differentiates products that are not different. As we stick more labels on products that don't really tell us anything more, it makes it harder for consumers to make their choices."
The FDA defends its approach, saying it is simply following the law, which prohibits misleading labels on food. And the fact that a food, in this case salmon, is produced through a different process, is not sufficient to require a label.
The controversy comes at a time when Americans seem to want to know more about their food - where it is grown, how it is produced and what it contains. Books criticizing industrial agriculture have become bestsellers, farmers markets are expanding and organic food is among the fastest-growing segments of the food industry.