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GMO labeling a sticky situation for seafood
Should disclosure of GM products be mandatory at point of sale?
By James Wright
September 01, 2013
Chef Paul Fehribach can recall the kitchen clamor when Flavr Savr first hit the market in the mid-1990s. The much-talked-about tomato, the first genetically modified (GM) fruit or vegetable the federal government licensed for commercial sale and human consumption, had chefs like him asking — and fielding — lots of questions. Working at the Laughing Planet Café in Bloomington, Ind., Fehribach learned the ruby red tomatoes had been engineered to grow tougher, thicker skins that would slow the ripening process, preserve shelf life and prevent rotting along the supply chain. They were, as the popular narrative often goes, the future of food.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined the GM tomatoes were “as safe as tomatoes bred by conventional means” and therefore did not necessitate specific GM labeling, high production costs and handling issues ultimately proved crippling for Calgene. The California-based company’s revolutionary product was never widely available and was totally off the market by 1997, less than three years after its introduction. (Multinational agriculture-biotechnology firm Monsanto acquired Calgene that year to capitalize on its oilseed and cotton undertakings.)
Though the tomato proved to be a lemon, GM foods now proliferate. Corn, soybeans and canola are the most predominant GM crops available today: This year, 93 percent of U.S.-grown soybeans, in production acreage, are genetically engineered to be herbicide-tolerant, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
An increasing amount of soy protein is being fed to farmed fish commonly available to U.S. consumers, such as tilapia, catfish and salmon. Should those fish be labeled as GM? How far should labeling requirements go?
Fehribach is hearing those and other questions about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the food supply once again. Big Jones in Chicago, is “very nearly GMO-free,” says the co-owner and executive chef of the restaurant that specializes in “Southern heirloom cooking.” For now, seafood isn’t a problem in that regard; Big Jones menus Lake Pontchartrain blue crab, Louisiana crawfish and sustainable staples like Laughing Bird shrimp from Costa Rica (which is both farmed and wild), sourced via CleanFish. It’s challenging, and often more expensive, to procure products that meet what’s become a demanding criterion, he adds. He just doesn’t seem to care much about that.
“Food costs what it costs. I’m going to purchase the best possible foods that I can, grown in a very traditional, low-impact manner,” says the introspective chef, one of 266 culinary professionals nationwide to join the Boston-based group Chefs Collaborative this spring in publicly rebuking (in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg) a transgenic farmed salmon that could be available in U.S. supermarkets. If finally approved, that product will likely not require labeling to indicate that the fish was genetically modified, says the FDA, coming to the same conclusion it did for Flavr Savr tomatoes nearly 20 years ago. The agency’s stance on GM foods exasperates food-activist groups that contend consumers have the right to know how their food is produced, and with what ingredients.
Additionally, food products with GM ingredients may find limited prospects among retailers like Whole Foods Market (and 2,500 other retailers) and restaurateurs that are shunning transgenic fish or GM foods altogether. Use of GM ingredients in fish feed would also be a disqualifier for the lucrative organic market and USDA Organic seafood standards, should they ever become official.
Fehribach, who is admittedly “obsessed” with food and all the machinations of its production and distribution, won’t go so far as to say that GM foods are intrinsically bad — in fact, few food professionals or objective organizations will. Unless there is a “clear beneficial aspect for society” from such innovation, he’s simply not buying.
“If it reduces the environmental impacts of agriculture or aquaculture, or produces more nutritious food, that’s one thing,” Fehribach says. “Lowering costs or making more money is not a clear benefit to society. The GM industry likes to portray its technology as something that’s carefully studied and airtight. I’m not going to take their word for it.”
Perhaps some parallels can be drawn between the Calgene tale and that of AquaBounty Technologies, but only time will tell if the Maynard, Mass.-based firm’s fate will be similar to that of its pioneering predecessors. Employing cutting-edge DNA technology, AquaBounty has developed a GM Atlantic salmon hybrid augmented with specific growth-accelerating hormones from the chinook, or king, salmon and the eel-like ocean pout to construct an animal that reaches market size — from egg to fillet knife — in approximately 18 months. Because that’s roughly half the grow-out time needed for a conventionally farmed salmon, the rallying cry promoting the product is evident: It would require less time, food and energy to produce a fish that consumers clearly want.
Nevertheless, it’s been a tough sell. Opposition from the environmental community, Congress and the seafood industry itself has rained down on the biotechnology enterprise, which has been developing its process, and seeking FDA approval, for 18 years. AquaBounty has passed both food-safety and environmental-impact assessments. The company says the FDA does not provide any information regarding the status of its application reviews, despite widespread media reports that the product was being fast-tracked for approval.
Critics are concerned about potential for escape from farms, but the fish is intended for indoor closed-containment cultivation only and is engineered to be sterile, which the company feels should allay any worries about interbreeding or competition for resources in the open ocean. AquAdvantage salmon would be regulated by the Center for Veterinary Medicine under the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act.
AquaBounty has managed to survive without a sellable product as the approval process has muddled through many evaluations and public comment periods. Late last year, Intrexon Corp. of Blacksburg, Va., purchased 48 percent of the company’s shares, which are traded on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange. Intrexon now owns 53 percent of the shares, according to CEO Ron Stotish, Ph.D., who founded the company and had his “first interaction” with the FDA back in 1995.
Stotish’s patience appeared to be wearing a bit thin this summer when AquaBounty released a statement claiming politically influenced delays had “damaged the credibility of the FDA as an independent science-based regulatory agency.”
When reached for further comment on the matter, Stotish says there is a “huge economic interest which has acted to oppose new production technology to preserve existing interests,” adding that activist attacks have “exploited the general lack of [consumers’] understanding of food production and food safety to create fear of new and potentially competitive technologies.”
Further, in a point-counterpoint paper released in the Food and Drug Law Institute’s (FDLI) Food and Drug Policy Forum in late July, a team of scientists headed by Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., University of California-Davis, said the process FDA is using to regulate products from GM animals is overly rigorous, far beyond the legally required scientific analysis of food and environmental safety. No product could withstand this level of “non-science-based scrutiny,” according to Van Eenennaam’s paper.
Conversely, Food & Water Watch Senior Researcher Tim Schwab argued that approval of GM salmon would “establish a dangerously lax legal and regulatory precedent for a whole new era of biotech animals, whose potential risks to consumer health, animal health, the environment and the economy will not be meaningfully examined by FDA prior to commercialization.”
Stotish counters that any U.S. producer seeking to grow AquAdvantage would need to apply to FDA for approval, which could take time. If his company gets the green light, production will commence immediately at AquaBounty’s facility in Panama, and the product “could be on [U.S.] store shelves 18 months after that,” says Stotish.
Other consumer-watchdog groups like Consumers Union (CU) aren’t satisfied with either AquaBounty’s data or the FDA’s handling of the assessment. Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior scientist at CU, has called FDA’s research “flawed” and contends that the potential for the fish to cause allergic reactions has not been adequately researched.
Add to the mix a number of congressmen who are also opposed to GM salmon, citing the lack of scientific rigor and expertise at the FDA, and you have a classic recipe for controversy. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) repeatedly refers to the fish as “Frankenfish,” and feels it’s unsafe for consumers and the oceans.
Wins and losses
What the oceans need, most anyone in the seafood industry and in the non-governmental organization community can actually agree on, is reduced dependency on “feeder fish” such as anchovies, herring and menhaden, to name a few of the species commonly utilized by fishmeal manufacturers worldwide. Lowering the feed-conversion ratio, or the amount of feeder fish used to grow farmed fish, is a shared goal but one with broadly differing views on how to achieve it; fish-in/fish-out calculations can also vary widely from source to source. According to the 2012 United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, 15 million metric tons of fish, or slightly higher than 10 percent of the global catch, was fed to other fish and livestock in 2010.
Groundbreaking feed formulations by aquaculture ventures utilizing substitute ingredients like soybeans, for instance, have been met with both praise and disparagement. Kampachi Farms in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, is a sustainable feeds research company that focuses on sashimi-grade kampachi (yellowtail) fed a diet with fishmeal inclusion rates as low as 12 percent. Co-founder and CEO Neil Anthony Sims and his team have been working this year on feed formulations that “completely eliminate all marine-source fishmeal, with no discernible effect on product quality,” he says. “This is a significant result, something that we should all be celebrating.”
What’s more, Sims contends that there is no “evidence whatsoever of any harmful impacts of GM soy to fish, to humans or to marine ecosystems.”
Verlasso, a company jointly launched by AquaChile and chemical company DuPont, claims to have developed “comprehensive solutions to many of aquaculture’s historic challenges,” says Director Scott Nichols, Ph.D. (SFB March, p. 8). Nichols, formerly the global manager for aquaculture business development at DuPont, says the dependency on wild fish is “an existential problem for salmon aquaculture,” adding that the industry standard fish-in/fish-out ratio is 4:1.
Verlasso has substituted much of the fish oil in its feed with yeast rich in omega-3s. It is a “genetically modified microbe,” says Nichols, employing the omega-3 producing capability of marine algae. The results have brought Verlasso’s fish-in/fish-out ratio to 1:1; its goal is to reduce it even further.
“With this menu, we ensure that the salmon continue to get the omega-3 oils that are crucial for them and good for us,” Nichols says. “At the same time, we are dramatically reducing our dependency on catching wild feeder fish.”
Nichols declined to comment on labeling requirements for farmed salmon fed GM ingredients, or GM salmon in general. Sims, however, says if consumers truly want to differentiate non-GM products, there is “ample opportunity for producers to have them certified as such, and to sport that label.”
Stotish says AquaBounty has “always supported voluntary labeling.” Critics of GM foods, he adds, have made “any labeling very difficult as they advocate labeling as a commercial weapon. U.S. policy requires labels to be truthful, not misleading, and to convey useful information on product content and policies. We think this is an intelligent and workable policy.”
Labels are indeed powerful. But with the controversy focused on GM fish, some see the opportunity for the seafood industry’s greatest hope for spiking sales — organic certification — slipping away.
Farmed salmon became a viable option for seafood buyers in the early 1980s, when the market was “ripe for the entrée of this new thing,” says industry veteran Dick Martin, adding that the year-round availability of the product, consistent quality and attractive appearance led to “unimpeded growth” for eight or nine years. The president of Martin International Corp. in Boston, a seafood importer that brands Scottish farmed salmon under the Black Pearl label, believes that early success, in a way, got to the industry’s head. An opportunity to educate the public about its product was missed and the industry suffered the consequences.
“The gold rush mentality didn’t impress upon the industry the need to educate people about fish farming,” says Martin. So when aquaculture became the target of environmental activists, it led to decades of being “bashed in the media,” he says, with no comprehensive game plan for defense. “There were some outright lies, because we never explained it in the beginning.”
Black Pearl’s organic salmon is fed a diet free of any GM ingredients, and has earned organic certification by Germany-based Naturland and the United Kingdom’s Organic Food Federation. But the United States does not recognize any farmed seafood as organic, per a lack of official USDA standards, so the marketing reach on organic claims is limited. Some third-party organic certifications are allowed in labeling claims, except in California, and there is no “USDA Organic” seafood anywhere in the country, despite that carrot dangling in front of producers’ faces for nearly a decade.
“If we ever get USDA Organic certification, there’s our next opportunity to educate the world about fish farming. We can’t miss that opportunity,” says Martin. “It’ll be a critical moment to define the industry once again.”
Martin is concerned that if unlabeled GM salmon gets into the marketplace that consumers won’t be able to differentiate non-GM salmon from traditional and — worst-case scenario — would skip the seafood department altogether.
“It crosses a boundary, of sorts, to get into the center of the plate,” says Martin, when asked about common perceptions of GM crops, which have been around for years, and GM animals, which have not. “My big fear is that, since our industry is so maligned with bad press, this is a double whammy if GM salmon creeps into the market. It’s handing the anti-aquaculture lobby a 50-pound silver-plated sledgehammer with which they can beat us senseless for the next 20 years.”
For now, Martin is looking at the GM issue as an opportunity to highlight the attributes of his product, while holding out hopes that USDA will soon recognize organic standards for seafood. Any product fed GM feed would be ineligible for USDA organic labeling.
Sims, who’s pushed for stringent yet achievable organic standards for years, was also asked about missing out on the organic market by relying on soy protein. He responded with his own question.
“One has to ask: ‘What organic market?’ There is no commercial incentive for a fish farmer to use non-GMO ingredients in their fish feeds,” he says. “One might find some irony in there, perhaps.”
As organic seafood proponents salivate over the prospect of placing the USDA Organic label on their fish, they’re exploring other labeling opportunities. Martin, for one, would welcome the opportunity to use “non-GMO” language on his product labels in some fashion, if FDA were ever to allow such a claim (USDA does allow for such claims for meat and liquid egg products, but has no jurisdiction over seafood products whatsoever).
GMO labeling is somewhat of a hot potato in Washington, D.C. Until the FDA issues a final rule on AquaBounty’s application, federal officials won’t say much about the issue. When asked about the potential for non-GMO labeling for seafood, Arthur Whitmore, communications team leader for FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says he has “no ability to predict whether such guidance will be needed or issued in the future, at least until the [Center for Veterinary Medicine] renders a decision on the application before it.”
Food labeling, some say, should be a much simpler issue. “It’s simply about disclosure. The consumer makes that choice, not me,” says Martin. “I’ve never expressed the opinion that anything GM is bad for you. I don’t know. But if that’s the game plan, to flood the market with it, then everyone drowns.
“There is a market for GMO-free product,” he adds. “Our customers would rarely ask for that; it was assumed. But this thing could be like a freight train, it’ll be a huge issue.”
The group Just Label It has garnered 1.2 million consumers to petition the FDA for mandatory GMO labeling in food, feeling that the number and variety of GM foods reaching store shelves is “accelerating without proper regulation or human health testing, and most importantly, without labels.” The organization applauded the Senate Appropriations Committee for passing in June an amendment to label GM salmon, a motion offered by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “Americans deserve the right to know more, not less, about the food they eat and feed their families,” says Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It.
The Non-GMO Project, which certifies products made without GM ingredients, firmly agrees. Courtney Pineau, assistant director, refers to GMOs as “experimental.”
Sixty-four countries, from Australia to Vietnam, require GMO labeling, according to the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization (labeling thresholds vary from zero to 5 percent GM content, according to USDA). Why can’t the United States make it 65, fellow right-to-know proponents wonder, and empower consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions? Is there such a thing as too much information? Some say no.
“I’m pro labeling — whatever you can fit on there. If only 2 percent of people care, well, any information you can give them to make informed decisions is extremely important. It’s a fundamental tenet of American democracy,” says Fehribach. “We talk about voting with our dollars? You don’t get the choice with GMOs.” Email Senior Editor James Wright at email@example.com