A different kind of fish tagging
LIHU‘E — As history unfolds, science fiction keeps closing the gap with reality. Soon, supermarket shelves could be filled with a super-salmon created in a laboratory. With this real possibility on the horizon, should consumers have the right to know what they are buying to feed their families?
The federal Food and Drug Administration is gathering public input on an draft Environmental Assessment for the commercial production of a genetically engineered salmon. The fish, originally created in 1989, grows to 2 feet and fattens to 6.6 pounds in 18 months, while its farmed counterpart grows to 13 inches and weighs 2.8 pounds during the same period.
Meanwhile, the Hawai‘i state Legislature is looking into a law that would require labeling of genetically engineered fish. If passed, this would be the first law in Hawai‘i to require labeling of any genetically modified organism, plant or animal.
Senate Bill 615 was last heard Jan. 31 by the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, when a recommendation for passage reached unanimous approval among the five committee members. The bill is now headed to the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, though no date for a hearing has been set so far.
SB 615, in its current form, would require that raw fish products offered for retail come with a label that clearly states, “Genetically Engineered.” In case of processed foods containing genetically engineered fish, the label would state “Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
So far, past attempts to label food that contains GMOs have failed at the Legislature. One of the main arguments against such law is that about 90 percent of products in a typical supermarket have some sort of GMO ingredient. To require labeling in a state that imports at least 85 percent of its food products, would create more financial hardships on local retailers and consumers.
The bill received dozens of submitted testimony, the vast majority of them in support of the bill. The argument for those supporting the bill is mainly for health concerns and for transparency. By contrast, there were three testimony in opposition to the bill.
“I am in strong support of this measure and encourage the committee to expand the scope of this measure to include all genetically modified foods sold in Hawai‘i. The people of our state deserve the right to know what they are eating and the right to make an informed decision on the same,” Kaua‘i County Councilman Gary Hooser wrote in his submitted testimony.
“I want to know what’s in my fish,” Kapa‘a resident Jimmy Trujillo said in his testimony, echoing dozens of testimony in support of the bill.
Moloka‘i resident and seasoned Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte said in his testimony that GMOs are “suspect at best” when it comes down to health and environmental impacts.
Hawai‘i Food Industry Association Executive Director Lauren Zirbel wrote in her testimony that the cost for the labeling requirements will be borne by importers and consumers.
Additionally, the practical reality of enforcing the bill would be a “nightmare,” according to Zirbel.
“If the distributor does not label the fish or advise the retailer that the product is GMO, then the retailer is potentially liable for the misleading,” she said. “A retailer cannot identify GMO product by visual or taste inspection.”
Zirbel said this is a federal issue that should be dealt at that level, with the onus resting with manufacturers and suppliers, not retailers.
The Hawai‘i Crop Improvement Association, a nonprofit trade association representing Hawai‘i’s seed farmers, opposed to the bill.
HCIA Executive Director Alicia Maluafiti, in her testimony, specifically pinpoints the genetically engineered salmon produced by AquAdvantage, the same super-salmon in the process of being approved by the FDA.
“This salmon was genetically engineered with a gene from a Chinook salmon to allow it to reach its market weight in half the time of the conventionally raised salmon, thus contributing to more sustainable aquaculture systems,” said Maluafiti, adding that the FDA has declared the salmon safe to eat and that it does not pose a threat to the environment.
Hawai‘i Aquaculture and Aquaponics Association’s Ron Weiderback said in his testimony the legislation would add an unnecessary cost to retailers.
The AquAdvantage Salmon “founder animal” was generated in 1989 by micro-injecting a recombinant DNA made of a promoter from an ocean pout anti-freeze protein gene and a protein-coding sequence from a Chinook salmon growth-hormone gene into the fertilized eggs of wild Atlantic salmon, the FDA states in a preliminary Finding of No Significant Impact published May 4, 2012.
Subsequent selection and breeding led to the establishment of the AquAdvantage Salmon line, which has been propagated for eight generations, according to FDA.
On Dec. 26, the FDA published a notice seeking public comments on the agency’s draft EA of the proposed conditions of use specified by AquaBounty Technologies, Inc., in support of a New Animal Drug Application concerning the AquAdvantage Salmon.
Under the proposed conditions, the salmon would be produced as triploid, all-female populations with eyed-eggs as the product for commercial sale and distribution. These eggs would be produced in a facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada. After confirming the genetic integrity of the broodstock, these eggs would be shipped to a land-based grow-out facility in the highlands of Panama, where they would be reared to market size and harvested for processing, according to FDA.
No effects — in
The FDA, after considering the potential environmental impacts of the operations, made a preliminary determination that there would be no significant effects on the quality of the human environment in the U.S., thus making a preliminary determination that an Environmental Impact Statement will not be prepared.
The FDA’s logic for such determination is explained in the FONSI.
“As the proposed action would only allow production and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon at facilities outside of the United States, the areas of the local surrounding environments that are most likely to be affected by the action lie largely within the sovereign authority of other countries (i.e., Canada and Panama),” FDA states.
Additionally, because the law does not require an analysis of environmental effects in other countries, effects on Canada and Panama were not addressed in the draft EA, except where it was necessary to determine whether there would be significant effects on U.S. due to exposure to pathways from production and grow-out facilities.
In other words, the FDA’s determination of safety only considers effects to the U.S.
As far as Panama and Canada, it’s up to them to figure out how to protect their environment, event though the entire operation is being laid out to supply U.S. markets.
The FDA will be taking public input on the draft EA until Feb. 25.
Visit www.fda.gov and do a search on genetically engineered salmon to find and download the draft EA, and to download instructions on how to submit testimony.
Visit www.capitol.hawaii.gov to submit email testimony on SB 615.
• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.