by Marion Nestle
Sep 21 2010

The GM salmon saga continues

The FDA has just concluded two days of hearings on the safety and labeling of genetically modified (GM) salmon. I’ve been collecting comments about this and will add a few of my own.

USA Today: Let’s begin with Elizabeth Weise’s clear, insightful summary of what this is about. She summarizes the situation with GM salmon in a nifty Q and A format:

Q: What happens next?

A: Nothing soon. Before issuing a decision on the application, FDA will publish an Environmental Assessment of the salmon, followed by a required 30-day comment period. The agency would then determine whether it would file a Finding of No Significant Impact or an Environmental Impact Statemen….then use those findings to make a decision on whether or not to allow the sale of the salmon. The agency has said it has no set timeline for reaching a decision. Were the agency to decide to approve the sale of the salmon, it would take two years before the first crop was ready, company officials say.

Food Chemical News (September 20):  reports that AquaBounty’s CEO has no intention of restricting GM salmon farms to Panama. At the FDA hearing, he “forecast a spread of transgenic salmon operations from a proposed site in Panama to other countries, including the United States.”

Oops. The FDA had to remind him that his company’s application is for Panama only, and any other sites would require supplemental applications from the firm.”  The FDA said it was “not interested in AquaBounty’s future business plans.”

FoodNavigator.com reporter Caroline Scott-Thomas predicts that the hearings will lead to no recommendation.

The FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC) did not vote or make a recommendation at the end of the hearings, saying that it does not yet have sufficient data…After two days of hearings, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel has called for more research to decide whether genetically engineered salmon is safe for consumption.

The New York Times says that the advisory group favored approval of the GM salmon, but that this could take ages.

Food Chemical News (September 21) says that most speakers at the hearing on GM labeling did not want it to be mandatory. It quotes Greg Jaffe, the director of biotechnology at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), as opposing mandatory labeling. Apparently, Jaffe:

urged AquaBounty to require its customers to provide “real” voluntary labeling on food products, such as “AquaBounty salmon,” “fast-growing salmon” or “environmentally friendly salmon”….He agreed that “no ingredients from a genetically engineered source” would be acceptable language provided there’s a comparable GE product in the marketplace.

Why would a representative of a consumer organization oppose mandatory labeling?  For that, go to

Jill Richardson’s lengthy analysis of FDA’s actions, written for Grist.  She lays out some of the more complicated issues, and takes a tough look at the biases of the committee members.

Washington Post: Lindsey Layton writes about the debates over labeling (I’m quoted).

A Washington Post poll found 78% of respondents to be worried about the health and safety risks of GM salmon.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the new government has stopped a scheduled public dialogue about GM foods.  That’s one way to handle it. All those pesky consumers don’t want it? Too bad for them.

My interpretation: of course the public does not trust genetically modified foods. The foods are not labeled. If the biotech industry and the FDA want the public to trust them, they need to label the GM salmon and all the other GM foods in the marketplace.

The public wants the right to choose.  The public should have the right to choose.

The issue of GM foods cannot just be about safety.

My mantra on this one: Even if genetically modified foods are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable.

I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in 1993 when, under pressure from Monsanto, the agency rejected labeling of GM foods.  I wish the FDA had listened to me and the other consumer representatives on the committee, all of us convinced that labeling is essential for promoting trust, and giving the public a choice. And, we said, it’s the right thing to do.

The FDA now has a chance to redeem it’s bad decision.  I hope they take this opportunity and decide to require labeling.

Footnote: I wrote about all this in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, just published in a new edition in July.  In preparing the second edition seven years later, I was surprised by how little about food biotechnology had changed.  The issues have not changed.  The field is stuck.   Labeling is one way to break the stalemate.  Let the public have a choice.  I’ll bet doing that will solve a lot of problems.

  • Phil

    GM salmon!!! That sounds delicious. I really hope the FDA will approve it. I love progress!!! Please Marion, stop making these false statement regarding consumers’ acceptance of biotechnology. Check out the yearly surveys from IFIC and you will see that a large majority of Americans have no problem with GM foods.

  • http://wordvixen.com WordVixen

    Phil- I’d be careful about saying things like that. The large majority of Americans don’t know what GM foods ARE. “What? That’s like inter-breeding, right?”. I didn’t care either until I found out what it is. All the approval of more GM foods will do is increase the demand for organic, where people feel safe from franken-foods.

    Lucky for me, I can’t stand the taste of salmon- farmed or wild, and there doesn’t seem to be much demand for the fish I do like, so it won’t likely affect me. But given the problems that farmed fish cause in the wild, I personally think that only fish farmed in tanks on land should be allowed.

    Can we vote for no more farming in open waters? Any politician who’s interested in my vote can make that a part of their platform.

  • http://www.antioxidants-for-health-and-longevity.com stan

    Phil apparently doesn’t want to reveal who he works for (see Marion’s previous post on corn sugar)… why do you suppose?

    Surveys show that consumers don’t want to eat GM foods – that’s why the industry is fighting any regulations about labeling them. They know that GM-labeled foods won’t sell. Europeans consumers have rejected GM foods completely.

    Ten more reasons to reject frankenfish:

    http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/2010/09/ten-reasons-to-reject-a-suspicious-fish/

  • Phil

    For people who like facts backed up with data, check the following survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation on consumer perceptions of food technology.

    http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=2010_Consumer_Perceptions_of_Food_Technology_Survey

    Some elitists in this country want to foce you to eat organic… Organic is fine and you want to pay for it, I have no problem. But don’t force your own belief on others!!!

  • Jennifer

    Phil – this post doesn’t appear to do anything more than ask for the public to be given the option to choose for themselves via labeling. If the public wants the GM product (and I reckon they will if the price is right), then there isn’t an issue. But for those who do not want a GM product, they should be allowed to make that call for themselves. Labeling, in my mind, would support a free market. Let the market decide…

  • Mel B

    Phil – I wonder how unbiased the IFICF surveys are considering their supporters (as listed on their website) are all from our lovely (read: junk, GM-based) food industry.
    Anyway, as Jennifer said, the issue here is choice. I would like to have a choice in what I am buying and in order for me to have that the food must be labeled.

  • Suzanne

    Phil, If genetically engineered foods are safe, why not promote them through labeling? The IFICF survey used very positive language to describe their benefits. Here’s an example:

    All other things being equal, how likely would you be to buy bread, crackers, cookies, cereals or pasta made with
    flour from wheat that had been modified by biotechnology to use less land, water, and/or pesticides?

    Very likely 26%
    Somewhat likely 47%
    Not too likely 20%
    Not at all likely 6%

    What do you make of Europe rejecting outright GM foods?

  • Suzanne

    Great article, Stan, on Aquabounty fish. Thanks for posting.

  • Cathy Richards

    The International Food Information Council website says:
    “A Board of Trustees oversees the International Food Information Council Foundation. The majority of our Trustees represent universities, governmental bodies, research laboratories and public foundations. The balance of our Trustees represent for-profit companies.”

    However, I get their mailings (“Food Insight”), and I find the articles have a bias towards food processing/industry interests. In fact, I just scan the articles now to see what bee is in their bonnet, rather than reading carefully. It would be interesting to see the funding details behind the universities and laboratories represented on the Board.

  • Mel B

    Cathy – you can see a list of their supporters by going to their FAQ page under question 7 and opening the pdf that lists partners and supporters.

  • Elaine W

    Hey, Phil–did you ever notice that organic foods are actually labeled “organic” so people who want the choice to eat organic can actually do so, and those who choose differently can choose non-organic. But if there are no labels differentiating GM from non-GM foods, then no one can make a valid choice, so it’s the elitist food companies that are forcing their views on the general public. (But then, Phil, you already knew that, didn’t you, since the only people who would call organic farmers “elitists” are people who are shills for big business).

  • http://www.acommunaltable.com Nancy@acommunaltable

    Well, we could certainly do that. However, that is going to cost a tremendous amount of money since virtually every food we consume today has been genetically modified. Corn (the first genetically modified food) , wheat, rice, apples, oranges, plouts, plums, tomatoes, lettuce, etc., etc. The list goes on and on – but I suppose we could label each and every one of these foods as GM foods. The question of course becomes “what then would people eat if they did not want to eat genetically modified foods?”

    Now, I know you are going to argue that the salmon is different. But exactly how is this salmon different than a pluot???

    The answer is that the only difference is that the development of the pluot was much less precise and took significantly longer to develop. That is why I don’t understand all this hulabaloo about GM foods. Folks, the ONLY difference between what we are doing today and what we’ve done for 6,000 years is that today we can do it in a petri dish and we can exert much more control over the process!!!

  • Anastasia

    Dr. Nestle,

    I’m under the impression that current food labels have to do with safety. We have mandatory labels for allergens, for example. Genetically engineered plants (and now animals) have to go through many tests for safety to be allowed onto the market (unlike non genetically engineered foods which don’t get tested at all), which indicates a safety-based label isn’t needed.

    The proposed requirement for “contains GMOs” or some such label is based on what is effectively a philosophical reason. I get it. It’s cool, maybe we should have philosophical labels. My personal philosophy prevents me from eating products that came from a dead animal. Why aren’t there any “contains animal products” or some such label? Why isn’t anyone asking for one? Maybe we should also have “not Kosher” and “not Halal” labels because these are philosophical food issues as well.

    I would really really love to have some indication of whether a product is vegetarian or not, because it would be really helpful to me. But I understand that this non-safety based label has the potential to raise food prices and since it isn’t a safety concern, that doesn’t seem fair to me. Instead, I can encourage companies to add a voluntary “this product is vegetarian” or some such label by writing letters and buying products that are so labeled.

    I don’t understand how a vegetarian label and a GMO label are any different, or why a vegetarian label should be voluntary while a GMO label should be mandatory.

    Thanks in advance for your reply.

    PS: In Safari, the comment box is disabled, I had to paste this in. Just in case you’d like to know.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Anastasia,
    I am glad there are people as committed as you to not eating animal products. I hope this comes across as a sincere comment, as it is intended.

    However labelling something to be free of animal content would be really difficult. For example, most grains, sugars, spices, etc are stored in places that cannot be guaranteed to be free of insects, rodents, etc. It’s gross to think of it, but we are likely eating incidental wee bits of exoskeletons all the time, even if we go so far as to grind our own grain.

    I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t require the label to be that precise, but therein lies one of the barriers to good labelling — where do we draw the line? That was one of the barriers to GM labelling (0% GM content?, 1%?, 5%?) which good discussion should have overcome. Let’s keep making noise about it so that we do get better information about not just the safety of a product, but also its origins, storage, processing methods.

    For example, modified milk products. Are they local? From the US (may have BGH implications) or China (hopefully the melamine scare won’t be repeated) or ??

    However, many companies label products to cover their butts, not to inform. For example, some of the “processed in a facility that also processes nuts” type of warnings may be specious. This could potentially happen with GM or vegetarian labelling.

    Labelling is powerful, in many ways.

  • http://biofortified.org Anastasia

    Indeed, Cathy. As is the case with nuts, I think mandatory labels become useless very quickly. Vountary labels, when regualated for truthfulness, remain useful, as in voluntary vegetarian labels. I don’t think a mandatory GMO label would be very useful. I personally would like to see more voluntary barcode labels that will tell me even more than I want to know about the food I am buying. What variety of the crop is it, how was it grown, what pesticides, how much biodiversity on the farm… that’s what I want to know.

  • Mary

    I don’t understand this: “The issue of GM foods cannot just be about safety.”

    Marion–I’ve seen you support the regulation on the EU products that don’t have substantiated science on their side. And about “qualified” health claims.

    What exactly is the qualification for “cannot just be about safety”?

    I don’t understand what the claim is.

  • http://www.antioxidants-for-health-and-longevity.com stan

    From the Organic Consumers website:

    While the government seeks to boost farmed salmon supplies through transgenics, it is simultaneously letting wild salmon go to pot. At the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, the spawning grounds of the most productive wild salmon runs left on earth, the international mining giant, Anglo-American, plans to construct ‘Pebble Mine,’ the largest open-pit copper and gold mine in the U.S.

    Mines of this nature are notoriously bad for fish. Just two months ago a copper mine failure in China’s Ting River killed millions of fish. A similar disaster in the Bristol Bay fishery could mean the destruction of around a quarter of a billion pounds of salmon, curiously, about the same amount of salmon that Aqua Bounty hopes to produce with its transgenic fish.

    Instead of endorsing a risky experiment in genetic salmon modification wouldn’t it be better if our leaders protected wild salmon habitat? In the end we’d have just as much fish on our plates and a safer environment to boot.

    http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.htm?programID=10-P13-00038&segmentID=4

  • Cathy Richards

    Hi Mary,
    Many people, governments, companies etc are also interested in labelling country of origin, country of packaging etc (currently it’s usually just the country the distributer is in). For example, some infant formulas are produced in China, but packaged in the States or Canada.

    Others are interested in animal welfare, so they might be looking for an ASPCA seal of approval, a BGH Free claim, etc.

    Some of these can be voluntarily labelled, some can’t — ie. it is illegal to put the info on a label (GM, BGH).

    Package labelling isn’t just about safety. It’s about information.

  • Mary

    @Cathy Richards: “Others are interested in animal welfare, so they might be looking for an ASPCA seal of approval, a BGH Free claim, etc. ”

    Well, that’s not a government regulation, right? If you want to have a group like ASPCA that puts on a seal of approval, do that. I don’t see any reason the government has to regulate the animal welfare label.

    Those other items are trade issues right? None of them are human safety.

    What would be the basis for a government-regulated GM label? I still don’t understand the basis. It’s not safety. It’s not trade. It’s a philosophical objection. Right? What other non-religious philosophical objections are labeled in the US per regulation? Maybe if you could give me an example of that I could understand better.

  • http://Food-Ethics.com Chris MacDonald

    Mary and Cathy:

    When Marion writes “The issue of GM foods cannot just be about safety,’ I assume that that’s because safety isn’t the only issue. Some people are worried about the safety of GM foods. Others are not, but are worried about the safety of GM *crops*. Others still are worried for more spiritual reasons, I guess. (The problem, of course, is that the FDA’s job is food safety.)

    p.s. Cathy it is not illegal to indicate whether a product has been produced through genetic manipulation. The FDA has a document on their website telling producers how to do it:
    http://www.fda.gov/food/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidancedocuments/foodlabelingnutrition/ucm059098.htm

  • Pete

    I like the barcode idea! Maybe it can be one of those new codes that you snap with your cellphone and it brings up all the details (right now they have apps that do this so you can find a cheaper price).

    @ Cathy – more great reasons to not eat grains and sugar! Meat can’t be beat! ;-)

  • Jeremiah

    Dr. Nestle – would you please link to some research demonstrating higher incidence of allergic reactions to GMO foods? Or maybe something indicating a lower nutritional content in GMO foods? Is there any actual data that shows GMO foods to be more/less safe for consumption in any way?

    Because right now you’re trafficking in some ludicrous abstractions.

    @Chris McDonald – you’re describing a marketing problem, not a food-science one. If people ‘are worried’ about GMO, then maybe they need some biology classes or something, but giving consumers a “choice” does nothing to help anyone.

  • http://Food-Ethics.com Chris MacDonald

    Jeremiah:

    I never pretended it was a food-science problem. But the fact is, there are things that people care about beyond food science. Now the fact that people *care* about something doesn’t automatically imply that we need to *do* something about it.

    But it’s utterly false to say that giving consumers a choice doesn’t help anyone, unless you have a very narrow definition of “help”. The aim of a free market is to satisfy people’s preferences — some of those preferences are health-oriented, and others are not.

    Chris.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Mary,
    Exactly — if products want to put the ASPCA label on, they can.

    There lies the problem. If products want to put a GMO-Free label on, they CAN’T.

    Labelling needs to allow this information to be included if desired.

    Whether it should be mandatory or voluntary is a completely different argument than whether it should be allowed.

  • http://www.friedeggsandtoast.com Brenda

    If you’re a company and you want to sell me something, anything, I feel that as a consumer I have the right to ask questions and most importantly you should disclose as clearly as possible what is in that product. It’s my money and my body, therefore my choice.

    I believe in food labeling 100%.

    -Brenda

  • Mary

    @Cathy

    Well, that doesn’t seem to be true. Chris MacDonald gave you the link. But still, can’t you form a religion with some tenets and put a sticker on it that this food meets your religious requirements? And you can make one of those requirements that the DNA has nothing that originated in another organism ever? (Of course, this is impossible, but I imagine you’re clever enough to come up with some definition).

    Or if you put a label “organic” on it it would be assuredly GMO free, right?

    But if you want to ask for technology labels, I am going to demand that I know everything that was every grown subsequent to chemical or radiation mutagenesis. I’m also going to want hybrids labeled, because that really shakes up a genome–you don’t know what might happen there.

    And then I’ll laugh and laugh in the grocery store as people run screaming from organic foods that came from mutagenized origins. It will be sad to watch children cry that they can’t have seedless watermelons anymore, though.

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  • http://biofortified.org Anastasia

    Hm. Good discussion, but I still haven’t seen any indication that voluntary labeling isn’t the correct solution to some people wanting labels that are based on a philosophy. I’ll restate: what is the justification for mandatory labels that aren’t safety based?

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