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Genetically engineered salmon must be labeled, California Assembly bill says

May 6, 2011 | 11:12 am

SalmonGenetically modified fish sold in California would be labeled as such under a bill approved by the California Assembly Health Committee this week. Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) authored AB 88 in response to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's review of an application to approve the farming and sale of genetically engineered fish.

Genetically engineered, or GE, fish have yet to be approved for the U.S. But the FDA has been reviewing the first application to produce GE fish as food from the Massachusetts firm Aqua Bounty Technologies "for several years," said FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. The FDA held a public meeting about the application last fall. "There hasn't been any forward progression on the application" to sell GE fish eggs to approved growing facilities since then, she added.

GE fish are derived from combining the DNA of different types of fish, which allow them to grow, and go to market, more quickly. Aqua Bounty's GE salmon are estimated to grow to full marketable size in one-third the time of traditional farmed fish. Many environmental groups, including the Center for Food Safety in Washington, oppose GE fish, citing potential health and environmental risks.

Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety, said GE fish are more allergenic than regular fish; they also have higher levels of hormones and decreased levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. She also expressed concern that GE fish could escape from farmed environments and cross-contaminate wild fish.

Calls to Aqua Bounty Technologies on two separate days were not returned, nor was a call to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which opposes AB 88.

GE animals, including fish, are regulated under the U.S. Animal Drug Approval Act, which treats genetic modification as a drug because it alters the structure or function of the animal. The FDA review process for GE animals tracks the genetic modification from test tube to animal for multiple generations to see if it mutates or causes unintended effects. The review also looks into its safety for human and animal consumption, as well as environmental containment. 

According to Delancey, the FDA has instructed Aqua Bounty to provide multiple and overlapping pathways of containment to prevent GE fish from escaping into the wild. She said 95% to 99% of the GE fish are sterile females.

While GE fish have not been approved by the FDA, Assemblyman Huffman does not think AB 88 is jumping the gun. "We're going to continue to see applications like this," he said. "We've been hearing about the possibility of GE salmon for years. If it's approved, that's a big problem in California and every other salmon state."

Still, Huffman added, AB 88 does not ban the sale of GE fish. It merely mandates that GE fish be clearly labeled: "If you're going to sell it right next to wild California salmon, you've got to put a label on it so people know what you're selling. That's the kind of protection we need to have on the books."

RELATED:

Safeway, Vons top list for seafood sustainability

Reduce BPA exposure? Cut canned food from your diet

Poisoned fish: An old mercury mine taints California waters

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: An 18-month-old genetically modified salmon outsizes a farmed salmon of the same age. Credit: Reuters / Barrett & MacKay Photo

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