So Long Salmon?

IMPORTANT UPDATE:  as reported by the Food Revolution Network:

“The FDA has been overwhelmed with more than a million comments and petition signers, many of them stressing massive health, environmental, and ethical concerns. Faced with such a deluge of response, the FDA decided this issue was hot enough that it warranted further examination, and has officially extended the comment period for another two months. “

This is an unusual opportunity to have your voice heard.  The public comment period has been extended until April 26, 2013. 

We spent Christmas Eve around a long dining room table at our friends’ house immersed in the abundance of a Seven Fishes Feast: seven courses of fish, followed by a dessert lasting until almost midnight is a marvelous way to welcome Christmas Day. I prepared the sides and helped serve the third course: smoked salmon (delicious, and highly nutritious, wild Alaskan salmon) with potato-celeriac-sunchoke mash, red and green cabbage slaw, and a caviar-creme fraiche dip.  While I was busy cooking, the FDA moved a step closer to approving genetically engineered salmon.

What we stand to gain from genetically modified (or GM) salmon is faster growing fish ready for market and consumption in about half the current time, as illustrated by the following image from Science Progress.

What we stand to lose includes unknown impacts to human health, wild ocean ecosystems and remaining wild salmon species.  Unlike existing GM foods (corn, soy and canola among the more common), against which there are plenty of objections, the genetic manipulation of a wild animal introduces new and additional concerns: the possible escape from farm enclosures and contamination of the wild population; untested health implications for the fish, oceanic ecosystems and human consumers; and the precedent for further manipulation of animals and other wild species.

Nevertheless, after a preliminary investigation, the FDA (the federal Food and Drug Administration) found GM salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts, to pose “no significant threat,” and moved it closer to full approval.

Senator Mark Begich (a Democrat from Alaska) called the FDA’s findings a joke, saying, “I will fight tooth and nail with my Alaska colleagues to make sure consumers have a clear choice when it comes to wild and sustainable versus lab-grown science projects… People want to know they are eating natural, healthy, wild salmon.” Republican Representative Don Young called the FDA’s decision “foolish and disturbing.”

The “finding of no significant impact” or FONSI focused only on environmental questions, since in 2010, the FDA had already declared Frankenfish “as safe as food from conventional salmon.” The full report on the human health impacts can be read here.  The environmental assessment, released on December 26, 2012, will be available for public comment for just 60 days.

Despite increasing public concern surrounding both the human health and ecological implications of genetically altering species, the Organic Consumers Association explains that “the FDA considers any genetically altered animal a “new animal drug” for approval purposes. That means the genetically modified animal – in this case a salmon intended as food for humans – is subjected to a less rigorous safety review than if it were classified as a food (for humans) additive.”

Unlike conventionally farmed salmon*, the GM fish would start as fertilized eggs in Canada. The all female population would then be transported to an inland tank facility in Panama where they would be grown to maturity, processed into filets and shipped to US markets.

As with other genetically modified foods, the US does not require any labeling, so when buying or ordering salmon, the consumer would not know if the fish is wild, conventionally farmed, or GM farmed. A poll conducted by Thompson Reuters and National Public Radio found that 93% of Americans would like all GM foods labeled and that only 35% would be willing to eat GM fish.

There are numerous ecological and healthy reasons to be concerned.  Monterey Bay Seafood WatchFood and Water Watch and Food Poisoning Bulletin are excellent resources for additional information about seafood safety.  To speak out against GM salmon, visit The Center for Food Safety’s GE Fish Campaign to sign petitions urging the FDA and Congress to stop genetically engineered fish.  You can also add your name to the Organic Consumers Association‘s petition against GM fish.

Interested in filling your freezer with freshly caught, wild Alaskan salmon? There are several online companies which sell directly to the consumer. I often order from Great Alaska Seafood (and recommend joining their mailing list to enjoy special pricing).

If approved, would you eat it?  Or would you avoid salmon all together, since it wouldn’t be labeled and wild sources may become contaminated?  Will the bagel with lox be lost?

* It is worth making the distinction between conventionally farmed and wild salmon.  While wild salmon feed mostly on highly nutritious krill, providing Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and other difficult to find antioxidants, and contributing to the fishes’ naturally vibrant pink color as well as heart, brain and anti-inflammatory benefits for the consumer, farmed salmon is feed everything from wild fish (sometimes more fish than it produces) to corn and soy (safe to assume of the GM variety), turning the fish an unappealing shade of grey, which is then corrected with red food coloring. Instead of containing the desired Omega-3 fatty acids, farmed salmon often contains more Omega-6s, which generally trigger inflammation. You may want to read this, if you eat farmed salmon.

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