Some Good News on “Frankenfish” and GM Foods

Three large supermarket chains pledge not to sell GM salmon.

On March 20, 2013, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi, together comprising 2,000 stores coast to coast, pledged they would not sell genetically modified (GM) salmon, even if the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves that new beast for consumption by humans. The supermarket chains made clear that their policy responds to consumer and other citizen groups opposed to the fish.

A spokeswoman for Aldi, a chain with 1,200 stores running from Kansas and Texas to the east coast, stated that, “Our current definition of sustainable seafood specifies the exclusion of genetically modified organisms.”

This announcement represents the first split in the industry coalition of grocers and agribusiness giants that spent over $40 million during 2012 convincing voters to defeat California’s Proposition 37 ballot measure to label genetically modified (GM) foods.

The combined pledge from the food chains came after 30 organizations, including Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, and the Center for Food Safety, wrote to the retailers asking them to promise not to carry GM salmon. On a wider matter, Whole Foods had previously announced that all food on its shelves from GM animals and crops would have to be labeled by 2018, an action that meets the intent of Proposition 37, as well as pending initiatives in other states, including Washington.

In January, we described the controversy over GM salmon: the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested public comment on its deliberations over salmon genetically modified to grow twice as fast as their natural counterparts. The FDA was considering an application from AquaBounty, a gene-splicing company, to approve the GM salmon as a new veterinary drug.  Opponents believed that the fish, which Time magazine designated an “invention,” should be regulated as a new food product, because FDA approval would allow the GM salmon and its processed commodities, such as canned fish, to be sold in grocery stores for human consumption.

To produce the unprecedented “invented” GM fish, AquaBounty spliced a Chinook growth hormone gene into an Atlantic salmon, coupled with a DNA “promoter” sequence from a pout, a fish that resembles an eel. The result is a fish that grows year round since the promoter DNA keeps the growth hormone gene constantly “on,” regardless of the season. As a consequence, the AquaBounty salmon grows much faster than natural fish, and the genetic splicing produces a fish that more closely resembles a Chinook than the original natural Atlantic salmon.

In response to Sightline’s inquiries, AquaBounty offered to provide a photo comparing the GM fish to its natural counterpart in return for fees and other restrictions. Sightline declined to pay, so we cannot incorporate the photo into this post.  However, the company has provided pictures to press outlets, and consequently the photo, showing a huge GM product as compared to its natural species, has gone viral in the news media. Based on the gene splicing and the clear size difference, the designation Frankenfish seems apt, even if one accepts arguments that the GM fish are safe to eat. Opponents argue that GM fish should at least be labeled as such, an action the FDA did not require in its preliminary finding on AquaBounty’s application for approval.

Time magazine heralded the GM salmon on the grounds that consumers enjoy salmon, but natural stocks are declining. But as Senator Begich (AK) responded, a more natural approach would protect natural habitat and water quality, and manage wild stocks sustainably. In addition, salmon support multiple species in their habitats. Most salmon die shortly after spawning, and their carcasses provide food for predators and scavengers. The carcasses also attract insects, which in turn serve as food for young salmon. Salmon ecology also extends to Native Americans, especially in the Northwest, where treaty provisions include the right of “taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds.” In short, protecting wild salmon stocks for fisheries would also yield multiple benefits for the Northwest’s ecosystems.

GM salmon may provide food for grocery shoppers, but this manufactured creature depends on human handlers to move its eggs by ship or plane to tanks overseas, where the fish will grow and be processed for sale. Natural salmon seem a much better choice for supporting other wildlife in dynamic ecosystems, as well as for supporting commercial and Tribal fisheries.

In February 2013, the FDA announced that it was extending the comment period on its GM salmon findings for 60 days, in response to requests from the public for more time. Among those requests was a joint letter from both senators in Alaska (Begich and Murkowski), Oregon (Wyden and Merkley), and Washington (Murray and Cantwell). They were joined in the letter by Senator Barbara Mukulski (MD),who has a particular interest in programs related to oceans, including fisheries.

The FDA’s decision means that until April 26 citizens have the opportunity to submit comments to the agency electronically via this web link.

 

John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant who occasionally submits material that Sightline staff turn into blog posts.

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Comments

  1. Karl Haro von Mogel says:

    I contacted the company, Aquabounty, to find out about the claims made in this piece about charging for pictures. Here was the response:
    “It turns out some company in the UK has essentially stolen the photos by downloading them from other stories, and they are selling them. I understand the firm that shot the photos is pursuing the UK firm for copyright infringement at the moment.”

    So this author did not contact Aquabounty, and the claims about charging for pictures are misapplied. Some of the other pieces of info in this story are also dodgy, perhaps the author should consider doing more research? (The fish does not look more like a Chinook, for example)

    • John Abbotts says:

      1. As the post explains, Sightline contacted the company for permission to run the photo. Sightline staff involved in the contact checked the draft for accuracy, and determined that the description of their interaction is correct.

      2. I rechecked salmon sizes via Wikipedia and web pages of the WA Department of Fish & Wildlife.
      I stand by the statement in the post that the GM fish more closely resembles a Chinook than the natural Atlantic salmon.
      Readers who want to do their own check may compare fish sizes in the photo via the linked article in the post, and that link is repeated here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/frankenfish-phobia/?hp

      In case there was any confusion, the GM fish is in the background, the natural fish without spliced DNA is in the foreground.

  2. Steve Erickson says:

    Of more concern than whether the transgenic Frankenfish looks more like a Chinook than a ‘normal’ factory Atlantic Salmon is whether it is more likely to successfully hybridize with any pacific salmonid, give the additoin of Chinook genetic material. Fish feed lots (net pens) in Washington and BC are constantly ‘leaking’ Atlantic Salmon, which have now been found in over 80 rivers and streams on Vancouver Island and known to have successfully reproduced in several. At least until now, hybridization between escaped factory Atlantic Salmon and native pacific salmonids has been a very remote possibility. But I’m not aware of any testing of hybridization potential between the GMO transgenic Frankenfish and native salmonids. Including, for that matter, Atlantic Salmon on east coast of North America.

    In general, the commercial gene splicing industry has a very poor track record of preventing escape of GMOs. It should be assumed that if these Frankenfish are approved, they will escape from confined environments.

    • John Abbotts says:

      Hello Steve,

      Thank you for your comment, and more importantly, for bringing the discussion back to sustainability, which is Sightline’s prime concern and focus. Sightline staff are aware of the issues around net pens, but as I was drafting the post, my reaction was that I knew that net pens exist, and that one can view them through GoogleEarth (in parts of Puget Sound, for example). But I do not feel familiar enough with particular issues to discuss their operations versus the GM salmon. (And of course, there are also word length concerns in preparing a blog post, consistent with the theme of, “all the news that fits, we print.”)

      If you have further comments on the relative sustainabilities of the natural salmon life cycle, net pen operations, and GM salmon, I know that I would be enlightened by further discussion, and I expect that other Sightline Daily readers would as well.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting. It is gratifying as a drafter to receive thoughtful comments, because it indicates that folks are reading the post.

  3. Michael Alexander says:

    In an otherwise good report, I take issue with calling the GM salmon a Frankenfish. GM is Frankenfood. GM Fish is Frankenfish. It’s name calling.

    Adopting the manipulative tactics of marketers to sway emotions is not appropriate in a site I look to for accurate reporting and thoughtful commentary.

    BTW, I avoid GM foods when possible, and I agree that all GM foods should be so labelled.

  4. Paul Haeder says:

    Absolutely essential viewing on the cover-up by Canadian officials on the salmon farming (sic) thuggery going on in that country.

    At —

    http://dissidentvoice.org/2013/03/salmon-confidential/

    The documentary Salmon Confidential lays bare a massive ongoing cover-up over the effects of disease-bearing salmon farming operations in British Columbia, Canada that are imperiling the wild salmon populations. Disinformation has long been a plank in the salmon-farming industry. First Nations, commercial fishers, recreational fishers, environment lovers, consumers of healthful fish (meaning nature’s omega 3 fatty acid-rich wild salmon and not the vegetable-fed omega 3 fatty acid deficient, toxin-loaded, emamectin benzoate-treated, chemically colored, virally infected, genetically modified Frankenfish from corporate salmon pens) and the public are the losers and Norwegian multinationals are the winners. The Canadian and BC governments are complicit with corporations in the cover-up.

    The film follows biologist Alex Morton as she unravels the mysteries of BC’s declining salmon stocks using some of the world’s top fish labs. What she uncovers will surprise anyone who cares about our fish and all that depends on them. This 70-minute film documents Morton’s journey as she attempts to overcome roadblocks thrown up by government agencies and bring critical information to the public in time to save BC’s wild salmon. Learn about the changing coastal ecology, grassroots science-based activism, and the inner workings of government agencies tasked with overseeing our fish and the safety of our food supply. Salmon Confidential is a film for all people, especially Canadians.

  5. John Abbotts says:

    Hello again,

    Well, it seems that the comment chain has about run out on this post, so I will give a modest update and some thanks.

    The Seattle City Council resolution passed unanimously on April 22, and became the Councils formal public comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on GM salmon; a link to the Council’s press release is the following: http://www.seattle.gov/news/newsdetail_council.asp?ID=13575

    On that matter, my thanks to Ms. Phyllis Shulman, Council staff, who drafted the resolution, amended it as the Council directed. My impression is that this is just one item in a never-ending agenda that requires 24/7, or maybe 12/5, dedication by the Council staff. A hat tip for the Staff’s work, and to Ms. Shulman for helping me navigate the Council’s web pages.

    The period for public comments to the FDA on the topic ended April 26, and the Agency is still compiling and counting comments. Current results can be found here: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=FDA-2011-N-0899
    As of this weekend (May 4), the Agency reported a total of 14,600 comments from organized write-in campaigns, and 37,800 individual comments. A brief skim of the comments posted, as of May 5, suggests that few comments were in favor of both GM salmon and no labeling of the GM salmon for consumers.

    With regard to the last point, and what follows are my own opinions, not necessarily Sightline’s, and I expect the Institute’s rigorous editors will not allow me to get away with too much: But if we are to build a politics for the 99% (or for all, regardless of income levels), the non-corporate non-rich will need to find common ground, strategically and substantively. And right now, a policy consensus on GM foods seems to be that consumers overwhelmingly favor such labeling, and agribusiness interests overwhelmingly want to avoid labeling. That conclusion comes through the comments submitted here, a very limited statistical sample, as well as from a post from Grist, at http://grist.org/news/federal-bill-would-require-gmo-labeling/

    Moreover, in the interests of finding common ground on policy, messaging is important, as Anna Fahey’s posts on global warming have discussed. In that regard, I appreciate all the comments here, positive or negative. First, they indicate that folks are reading the blog, and thinking about the issue. In addition, comments force one to reexamine the facts behind the messaging [and admittedly, my response here amounted to “I stand by my statements” on the facts]. But they also force one to focus on how the message can seek common ground between differing opinions.

    On this matter, the issue of GM foods and labeling will come up again, in Washington state, if not elsewhere. As noted in another Grist post, a labeling initiative seems likely to come before WA state voters in 2013, at http://grist.org/news/gmo-labeling-initiative-gets-rolling-in-washington-state/

    Although the three supermarket chains reported in this blog have chosen not to sell GM salmon, those are voluntary actions by chains that admittedly cater to higher-income earners. A state initiative would give legal teeth to labeling requirements; and national legislation would set uniform national standards, the stronger the better, whatever the state of DC gridlock.

    And if the Editors will allow one more stream of thought, I will link to another Grist post on the three supermarket chains, that also comments on campaign strategies on GM foods and Bisphenol A contamination in foods: http://grist.org/food/are-walmart-and-big-food-pushing-for-gmo-labeling/
    Without belaboring the conclusions, the post makes clear that citizens often have more than one vehicle to express a policy opinion. They may “vote with their votes,” by endorsing candidates, from local to national levels, who support laws and regulatory actions supporting that “politics of the 99%, at least.” But citizens also often have options to “vote with their feet,” by asking retailers to stop selling particular products, or at least provide clear and observable labels for the products at issue.

    So, one last thank you to Sightline’s editors (I can think of radio host Stuart McLean, who uses the phrase “my long suffering editors”). I hope that I have not taxed your tolerance too much.

    Thanks again for the interest.

    • John Abbotts says:

      Oops, looks like I broke the link to the FDA electronic docket.
      So much for a graceful exit.

      If anyone is still reading this deeply into the post, and would like to look over the tabulation and some of the comments, the correct link is:
      http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=FDA-2011-N-0899

      The other links should work.
      Regards,

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