No agree­ment near on salmon la­bel­ing

FDA hear­ing is split over who should alert con­sumers that a fish is ge­net­i­cally al­tered.

Los Angeles Times - - Crisis Bell - An­drew Za­jac re­port­ing from washington aza­jac@latimes.com

Be­yond sharp and pre­dictable dif­fer­ences over whether ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered salmon be­longs in the food sup­ply, a rough con­sen­sus emerged Tues­day at a Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion hear­ing on la­bel­ing re­quire­ments: If the fish is ap­proved for mar­ket, con­sumers should have a way to avoid it.

The stick­ing point: Who should alert con­sumers that the fish has been ge­net­i­cally al­tered?

The un­usual hear­ing to col­lect pub­lic com­ment on po­ten­tial la­bel­ing re­quire­ments fol­lowed a meet­ing Mon­day at which a panel of out­side ex­perts gen­er­ally seemed per­suaded by the FDA’s pre­lim­i­nary con­clu­sions that AquaBounty Tech­nolo­gies Inc.’s salmon is safe to eat and poses lit­tle risk to the en­vi­ron­ment. But the com­mit­tee rec­om­mended more study.

The com­mit­tee’s cau­tion and the FDA’s will­ing­ness to con­vene a meet­ing to dis­cuss la­bel­ing — which the agency says it’s not re­quired to do — re­flect the stakes:

If ap­proved by the FDA, AquaBounty’s salmon would be the coun­try’s first com­mer­cial ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered food an­i­mal.

Op­po­nents in­sisted on a straight­for­ward so­lu­tion: Re­quire that fish pro­duc­ers la­bel the salmon as ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered.

But FDA rules pro­hibit la­bel­ing food solely on the ba­sis of how it was pro­duced. The agency re­quires la­bel­ing only of a “ma­te­rial dif­fer­ence” re­sult­ing from a pro­duc­tion process, such as a dif­fer­ence in tex­ture or nutri­ent con­tent — not the process it­self.

So far, the agency has not found any dif­fer­ences that would re­quire the AquaBounty salmon to be spe­cially la­beled.

AquaBounty’s salmon grows to mar­ket weight in half the time it takes or­di­nary salmon be­cause it in­cludes a gene from an eel­like crea­ture that prompts it to grow dur­ing the win­ter as well as the sum­mer. The com­pany plans to mar­ket the eggs to fish farm­ers.

Michael Landa, act­ing di­rec­tor of the FDA’s Cen­ter for Food Safety and Ap­plied Nutrition, said the agency was not seek­ing to change its la­bel­ing rules, but rec­og­nized that the unique na­ture of AquaBounty’s ap­pli­ca­tion had gen­er­ated in­tense in­ter­est.

“We’re pre­sent­ing an op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to ex­plain to us if there are ma­te­rial dif­fer­ences, [and] if so, what they are and how they might be dis­closed,” Landa said.

El­liot En­tis, founder of Waltham, Mass.-based AquaBounty, said a manda­tory la­bel would be un­fair be­cause con­sumers would in­ter­pret it as a warn­ing.

En­tis said he sup­ported vol­un­tary la­bel­ing by pro­duc­ers whose fish is not ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered.

Patty Lovera of Food & Wa­ter Watch ar­gued that vol­un­tary la­bel­ing is need­lessly com­plex and puts too much of a bur­den on con­sumers and pro­duc­ers of or­di­nary salmon.

“It’s a messy, messy area to put this on a vol­un­tary la­bel­ing scheme,” she said.

Lovera and sev­eral other speak­ers said they dis­agreed with the FDA’s con­clu­sion that the fish are es­sen­tially the same and urged the agency to re­quire a la­bel spec­i­fy­ing AquaBounty’s en­gi­neered ori­gins so con­sumers could de­cide whether or not to buy it.

But the FDA says con­sumer in­ter­est alone can­not de­ter­mine la­bel con­tent.

For ex­am­ple, in the 1990s, the FDA re­jected de­mands by some con­sumer and farm groups to re­quire milk pro­duc­ers to dis­close whether their milk came from cows given ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied hor­mones. When some pro­duc­ers la­beled their milk hor­mone-free, the FDA re­quired them to add that the agency had found no dif­fer­ence in milk from treated and un­treated cows.

Bruce Chassy, a pro­fes­sor of food mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign, said the FDA had no grounds to man­date a la­bel for the AquaBounty salmon. Vol­un­tary la­bel­ing could ef­fec­tively guide con­sumers, he said, as long as they are will­ing to bear the cost in the form of po­ten­tially higher prices.

“It’s not free,” he said at the hear­ing.

Chassy said later that the FDA may set­tle on a la­bel­ing pro­gram sim­i­lar to that used for milk: It could al­low fish pro­duc­ers to la­bel their salmon as non-ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered as long as they in­cluded a dis­claimer that the FDA con­sid­ers the al­tered fish no dif­fer­ent from or­di­nary salmon.

A fi­nal de­ci­sion on the salmon and its la­bel­ing ap­pears to be months away. Tues­day’s hear­ing marked the be­gin­ning of a 60-day pe­riod for fur­ther pub­lic com­ment on what the la­bel should or shouldn’t say.

Elaine Thomp­son

FISH MAR­KET: So far the FDA has not found any sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween or­di­nary salmon, like this coho salmon, and a ge­net­i­cally al­tered type.

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