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Point of View: Transparency needed with GM salmon

John Filose
By John Filose
December 01, 2010

As a marketing professional and a heavy consumer of both wild and farmed salmon, I am following with great interest the ongoing controversy surrounding genetically modified (GM) salmon. The Food and Drug Administration's preliminary finding is that GM salmon is a safe product for human consumption (See Top Story). However, the pushback from NGOs, consumer advocates and the wild salmon industry has been quite vocal. Numerous news reports, including one in the typically conservative Wall Street Journal (WSJ), have referred to GM salmon as "Frankenfish." That is not a very positive product reference!

The FDA has also concluded that there is no biologically relevant difference between GM salmon and regular Atlantic salmon. This ruling, if it stands, would mean that there would be no special labeling requirements for GM salmon. However, from both consumer and business perspectives, I believe that GM salmon should be labeled as such, even if there is no legal requirement to do so.

First of all, proponents cite the fact the GM corn and soybeans are already in the marketplace without special identification, which is a poor analogy. Salmon is a highly visible center-of-the-plate item. It is the No. 2 seafood in terms of per-capita consumption, behind shrimp. (I am not counting tuna; most of it is consumed canned, as a sandwich item). Salmon is not hidden as an ingredient or as a side dish. It is served as the entrée, whether ordered in a restaurant or cooked at home.

Secondly, not identifying GM salmon will only add to fears about product safety. I have been part of numerous focus groups with consumers, chefs and restaurant operators since the early 1970s. Get 12 consumers, 12 chefs/restaurant operators or 12 retailers in a focus group room and you will have a variety of opinions. Ask the group about taste, flavorings, product quality or plate appeal, and you can often have 12 different opinions. But start to talk about any product that carries even the slightest implication about product safety, and you will receive unanimous and vocal feedback. No one will accept any food item that brings the baggage of even a hint of controversy about food safety, and the term "Frankenfish" certainly does not generate warm feelings.

In addition, there seems to be little information available about GM salmon other than what proponents have told the media. According to the WSJ article: "To create the faster-growing salmon, scientists took a gene from the chinook salmon, which matures rapidly, along with a gene from an ocean pout, which produces growth hormones all year." I have been around the seafood industry for 30 plus years and am not familiar with the ocean pout. I'll bet that most seafood industry operators and consumers also are not familiar with this fish.

A successful introduction of any food item cannot be accomplished if you have vocal opponents defining how the media portrays your product. Failure to label GM salmon will mean that it will carry the "Frankenfish" moniker, unopposed, into the marketplace. It is dangerous for any new business to be defined by its opponents.

So where do we go from here? I hope that the sellers of GM salmon will go back to basic marketing. This requires clear labeling, plus developing separate communication about their product. A concise explanation of just what is GM salmon, listed somewhere on the packaging, is necessary to counter the "Frankenfish" phrase. This explanation should be in plain English, and not in "science talk." Additionally, the features and benefits for GM salmon needs to be broken down for all 
buyers and should be a key part of any communications program. Wholesalers need to know why they should buy GM salmon; chefs and restaurant operators need to know why they should serve it. Retailers will want to understand how to answer consumer questions about the term "Frankenfish." And finally, consumers must feel positive about ordering GM salmon 
in a restaurant or purchasing fillets in a supermarket.

GM salmon may be the first transgenic animal to enter our food channel. The sellers of this item need to be totally up-front with the wholesale trade and with consumers. You cannot slip this controversial item into the U.S. seafood distribution system as just another farmed salmon. Proponents of this product say that scientifically, GM salmon is the same as Atlantic salmon. I will take that as the truth, scientifically. However, the media has already classified GM salmon as a very different product. So, it should be sold as a unique item. The only thing more damaging than having your product called "Frankenfish" would be the accusation that you are trying to fool buyers by not labeling it as GM.

Buyers and end users are real professionals and expect and deserve all relevant information before purchasing any new seafood item. In the case of GM salmon, that means clear and transparent labeling.


John Filose is a seafood business consultant. He's worked in senior positions at four multi-national companies, and is a past chairperson of the National Fisheries Institute.


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