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Point of View: Transparency needed with GM salmon
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
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
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.