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Despite Dubious Evidence of Safety, You May Soon Be Eating Unlabeled Genetically Engineered Salmon

Environmental and consumer protection groups are crying foul.
 
 
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On December 21, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a draft environmental assessment (EA) finding, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, that genetically engineered (GE) AquaAdvantage salmon pose no risk to the environment. 

The document claimed that the fish "will not have any significant impacts on the quality of the human environment of the United States." It also claimed that the GE salmon, the first ever intended for human consumption in the United States, is unlikely to harm populations of wild salmon. 

The finding occurs as the Obama administration is continuing and expanding some of the worst environmental policies of the Bush administration, including exporting record amounts of water out of the Delta, killing record numbers of fish at the Delta pumping facilities and promoting the privatization of the fisheries through the "catch shares" program. 

The FDA made the finding in spite of a petition from conservation groups requesting that it complete a comprehensive environmental impact statement on the risks GE fish could present to the natural marine environment. 

Earthjustice filed that petition in May 2011 on behalf of the Ocean Conservancy, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, the Center for International Environmental Law and Greenpeace. 

“FDA’s narrow analysis fails to seriously consider the risks these genetically engineered fish could pose to our natural environment,” said Earthjustice attorney Khushi Desai. “If these fish mix with wild salmon, the ecological harm could be devastating. This genetically engineered fish puts the entire US salmon industry at risk, and most importantly it could threaten the very survival of our native salmon populations." 

After more than a decade of behind-the-scenes work with the GE fish sponsor, AquaBounty Technologies, the FDA announced last fall that it intended to approve AquaBounty’s application. In response, the public sent over 400,000 comments to the FDA opposing the “Frankenfish” and demanding mandatory labeling of any GE fish approved for sale to US consumers, according to a statement from Earthjustice. 

"Materials submitted to the FDA by the owner of the GE salmon, AquaBounty, raise serious, unanswered concerns regarding potential destruction of wild salmon populations," according to Earthjustice. "These concerns are significant enough to warrant a more thorough environmental impact statement, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act." 

In the draft EA released Friday, the FDA accepts AquaBounty’s representation that no fish will escape, survive, or reproduce in the wild—even though that type of security cannot be guaranteed. 

Conservationists, fishermen and consumer advocates take the company at its word that this is just their first step in a broader plan to produce these GE fish and others like them around the world. 

Vast majority of consumers oppose Frankensalmon 

Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, slammed the FDA decision to tentatively approve Frankensalmon. 

“Despite insufficient testing and widespread opposition, AquaBounty’s genetically engineered (GE) salmon took the final step towards becoming the first FDA-approved genetically engineered (GE) food animal," Hauter said in a statement. "The Food and Drug Administration released its draft Environmental Assessment, clearing the way for this transgenic organism to be approved by the agency under its new animal drug approval process. 

"Food & Water Watch is far from alone in condemning this historic decision – one that disregards numerous polls revealing that the vast majority of consumers oppose GE salmon. Over 40 members of Congress and scientists at other federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, have also voiced strong opposition to GE salmon, citing the lack of scientific rigor and expertise at the FDA," she noted. 

“To add insult to injury, this product may be hitting the market without labeling, meaning that concerned consumers who have demanded labeling will be unable to identify GE from non-GE salmon. Not only does this ignore our fundamental right to know what we are putting on our plates, it is simply bad for business, as many will avoid purchasing any salmon for fear it is genetically engineered," she stated. 

The Obama administration tentatively approved the Frankensalmon less than 2 months after Proposition 37, the initiative calling for the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food in California, was narrowly defeated on November 6. Pesticide companies, led by Monsanto and Dupont, and other corporations spent nearly $50 million to defeat the grassroots effort. 

Hauter noted that the FDA, tasked with protecting consumer safety, failed to conduct the appropriate studies to determine if it is safe to eat or even if the fish can live up to AquaBounty’s claim of faster growth rates. And, by releasing an environmental assessment instead of a more thorough environmental impact statement, the FDA failed to fully consider the threat this controversial new fish could pose to wild fish populations. 

“Congress can still keep FDA from unleashing this dangerous experiment," Hauter said. "Bipartisan legislation would ban the commercialization of this controversial fish. Food & Water Watch will be examining legal options to force FDA to do a more thorough assessment of this new GE food animal." 

Although Hauter said this latest FDA decision is a blow to consumer confidence, she encourage everyone to contact their members of Congress and demand this reckless decision be overturned. She also said Food & Water Watch and its allies will be collecting comments to deliver to the FDA during their public comment period. 

Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety noted that the environmental assessment says that the comment period is 30 days, but the Federal Register notice says 60 days. 

"I have confirmed with the relevant FDA staff that the Federal Register notice is correct. So 60 days for comment are in order," said Hanson. 

Caleen Audrey Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, urges everybody to sign Food & Water Watch's petition telling Congress to stop the approval of GE salmon: 

"Please sign on to this request to keep GE salmon, the Frankenfish, off the market. These Frankenfish are sure to kill wild Chinook salmon!" said Sisk. 

The Obama administration's abysmal record on salmon, fish and water 

The Obama administration's tentative approval of GE salmon for human consumption occurs in the context of an administration that has continued and expanded some of the most odious environmental policies of the Bush administration. 

The Obama administration is the first-ever federal administration to officially endorse the construction of a peripheral canal or tunnel, a project that will hasten the extinction of Central Valley salmon, Delta and longfin smelt and other fish species by diverting massive quantities of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to corporate agribusiness and southern California. 

The Obama and Brown administrations also presided over record Delta water exports and massive fish kills at the state and federal pumping facilities in 2011. The record water exports resulted in the "salvage" of a record 9 million Sacramento splittail and over 2 million other fish including Central Valley salmon, steelhead, striped bass, largemouth bass, threadfin shad, white catfish and sturgeon.  

These fish kills couldn't occur at a worse time. An analysis by the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA) has found that since year 2000 over one hundred million fish (102,856,027) have been sucked into the Delta pumps. This figure includes twenty six million valuable game fish, many of which are endangered. 

This is in spite of the fact that the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, signed by President George H.W. Bush in the fall of 1992, set a goal of doubling the Bay-Delta watershed’s Chinook salmon runs from 495,000 to 990,000 wild adult fish by 2002. The legislation also mandated the doubling of other anadromous fish species, including Central Valley steelhead, white sturgeon, green sturgeon, striped bass and American shad, by 2002. 

Rather than doubling, the Central Valley Chinook salmon fishery has suffered a dramatic collapse over the past decade, now standing at only 13 percent of the population goal required by federal law.  

As if tentatively approving GE salmon, fast-tracking the construction of the peripheral tunnels, exporting record amounts of water from the Delta, killing millions of fish in the Delta pumps and refusing to enforce the Central Valley Project Improvement Act wasn't enough, the Obama administration has promoted the privatization of fisheries through the "catch shares" program. 

"Under the guise of conservation, a system called 'catch shares' is being pushed by the government and larger members of the fishing industry alike to make a public resource, our fish, like private property," according to Food & Water Watch. "Traditional, small-scale fishermen are being pushed out of the industry as these shares are handed out for free with most going to larger, industrial fishing operations. Worldwide, catch share programs have meant fewer jobs for fishemen - and the effects spread to whole communities - fewer fishermen means less dollars for local shops, restaurants and more. For consumers, it can mean lower quality fish and a further reliance on industrially processed foods." 

Here is a link to the Federal Register notice. 

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

 
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