The Salmon Pass: Should GMO Salmon Be Labeled?

By Molly Watson | May 19, 2016
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Those who insist on knowing what they eat recently got a reprieve.

AquAdvantage salmon, the genetically engineered fish designed to grow at about four times the rate of its unenhanced Atlantic brethren, was approved by the FDA last November and set to hit fish counters in two years, which is how long even these fast growers take to reach market size, with no requirement to be labeled as genetically engineered. Yielding to pressure from consumer groups and Congress, the FDA issued a ban on its import and sale until labeling guidelines are established.

Our food has long been genetically altered with breeding techniques that have resulted in delights such as Meyer lemons and frying-pan-faced bulldogs, but I still have a visceral “look what happened when Dr. Frankenstein played around” response to the trans-species chromosomal tinkering of genetic engineering. Yet I doubt my early-19th–century novel analogy is one we should all heed. 

Putting aside the ethics of genetic engineering, I have a deeply held belief that people have the right to know what they’re eating. We shouldn’t have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to determine whether a salmon filet is wild-caught, farmed in sea pens or inland tanks, filleted behind the counter or shipped to China for filleting and sent back, much less if it’s genetically engineered. How and where food is grown and handled affects whether or not I want to eat it. 

I’m not alone. In a 2014 survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center, 92 percent of those polled “demand that the government require that genetically engineered salmon be labeled as such.”

So while wild-caught salmon may not end up next to its nonlabeled GE doppelganger at the market anytime soon, this is an ongoing battle, especially since the Senate Agriculture Committee recently approved the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which prevents state laws from requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. AquaBounty first approached the FDA about its aforementioned salmon in the 1990s. After the agency decided the fish was environmentally safe and consumable, it took five years for it to approve its sale last November. That long lead time will undoubtedly shrink for the next similarly tweaked animal bound for our stores.

Sustainability experts point out why salmon is the test case: market demand. Over just a few decades, salmon’s rich pink flesh has gone from an occasional luxury to an everyday dish. Seeking out a wider array of fish for our plates, and keeping our eyes open to pressures on other animals or foods, shouldn’t be lost in the labeling shuffle. 

Yet too much attention to the salmon-ness of this news deflects from the bigger picture: government agencies consistently drag against a more transparent and sustainable food system. Consumer advocates and food enthusiasts won a stay this time, but this conversation can’t be a luxury: we’re going to need to have it with every meal.

The Salmon Pass was published in the Spring 2016 issue. © 2016 Edible San Francisco.

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