California votes to label (but not ban) GMO frankenfish

  • Published on May 4th, 2011

With the USDA expected to approve genetically modified (GMO) salmon in the near future – without any serious safety research – it may devolve on the states to try to minimize the potential negative impact.

The California Assembly Health Committee in Sacramento on May 3 approved a bill requiring that all GMO salmon sold in California contain clear and prominent labeling.

Assemblymember Jared Huffman introduced the bill, AB 88, due to widespread dissatisfaction by consumer, fishing and environmental groups and Indian Tribes with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) current review of the first-ever proposed commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) Aqua-Bounty salmon.

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“Knowing whether our salmon is genetically engineered is important for a host of reasons, including risks to our native salmon species, and allowing consumers to make dietary choices consistent with concerns they may have for the environment, food safety, and religiously or ethically based dietary restrictions,” said Assemblymember Huffman, in explaining the reason for introducing the bill.

Keep it real, keep it safe

The Center for Food Safety (CFS), a co-sponsor of the bill, and other groups applauded the Health Committee for protecting the public’s right to know how their food is produced.

“The FDA has indicated that it will not require these GE fish to be labeled once they are approved,” said Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director of the Center for Food Safety. “As such, it is incumbent on the California State legislature, starting with the Health Committee, to let the people of California make informed choices about the food they eat by requiring the labeling of GE fish sold in California.”

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AB 88 “would provide that food is misbranded if the food is a genetically engineered fish or fish product, as defined, and its labeling does not conspicuously identify the fish or fish product as genetically engineered,” according to the bill language.

Coauthors of the bill include Assembly Members Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa), Tom Ammiano (D-SF), Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata), and Bill Monning (D-Carmel). AB 88 will make a stop in the Appropriations Committee before being taken up by the full Assembly.

The right to know

Public opinion clearly and consistently calls for food labeling, according to Spector. Recent polls indicate that 95% of the public want labeling of genetically-modified foods, and that nearly 50% of the public would not eat seafood that has been genetically engineered. Consumers sent nearly 400,000 public comments to FDA demanding the agency reject this application and require mandatory labeling of this transgenic salmon should it decide to approve it.

The Center for Food Safety and other organizations throughout the country recently called on the FDA to recognize the immense public outcry for mandatory labeling of untested, unproved transgenic salmon. If approved, the transgenic salmon – nicknamed “Frankensalmon” or “Frankenfish” by many opponents of GMO food – would be the first genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption.

“Until FDA completes an adequate environmental and human health review of genetically engineered salmon, it is up to individual states to protect consumers and their families,” said Spector. “California has always been a leader in environmental and food safety laws, and AB 88 continues this tradition by protecting the public from a potentially harmful food technology. More importantly, it gives consumers the right to know what they are eating and gives them a choice in the marketplace.”

Broad coalition

Supporters of the legislation include the California State Grange, Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, California Coastkeeper Alliance, Clean Water Action California, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, Commercial Fishermen’s Organization of Morro Bay, Crab Boat Owners Association, Food & Water Watch, Golden Gate Fishermen’s Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Sierra Club California, Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Association and South Yuba River Citizens League.

“Although most of Food & Water Watch’s efforts have been focused on national legislation to ban GE salmon such as HR 521 and S 230, rather than to label it, we are campaigning hard for AB 88 because California often sets the precedent for the nation in these sorts of matters,” stated Marie Logan of Food and Water Watch. “Passing AB 88 will send a strong message to legislators nationwide that consumers in California are concerned about genetic engineering of animals. The owner of the company producing GE fish has even admitted publicly that labeling the fish would be tantamount to banning it — so our work is cut out for us.”

“It is clear that California consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it’s made, and if it has been genetically engineered,” explained James Ferro, Policy Analyst for Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program. “This bill empowers California consumers to vote with their wallets when it comes to genetically engineered seafood.”

Ferro noted that California is not the only state concerned with the federal government’s potential approval of engineered fish; thirteen other states have introduced similar legislation this year to require labeling of genetically engineered fish or other engineered food.

->Next page: You can’t keep a lid on it

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About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.


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