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Too fishy not to label? 

A look inside genetically modified salmon

The FDA's recent approval of a Genetically Modified (GM) salmon was hailed as progress by proponents of GM food. It may be. But the reaction to the salmon's approval, coupled with the fact that under current laws it won't be labeled as GM, suggests this event is providing a timely boost to those fighting to label GM foods. While the debate has remained at something of a deadlock, this fish poised to become the poster child for the labeling movement, and its approval may spell the beginning of the end of attempts to block labeling.

The AquAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon modified to grow extra-fast with the help of genetic sequences from a Pacific Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout.

Its approval inspired the New York Times Editorial Board to editorialize that the fish should be labeled, reversing a 2013 position that GM foods don't need mandatory labels.

"Consumers deserve to know what they are eating," the board wrote, with regard to the AquAdvantage salmon, on December 1.

The Board noted that while there are no apparent safety concerns for people eating the fish, if the operation were scaled up there could be environmental issues. The eggs are fertilized in Canada and then transported to Panama where they are grown in inland tanks. If fish were able to escape during this precarious journey they could interbreed with wild fish.

The company that makes the fish, AquaBounty, assures us escapes are statistically impossible, but the fish's story contains so many moving parts that the Editorial Board sided with those who desire the right to avoid it.

The Times called on the Senate to vote against the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would overturn state-level decisions to label GM food — so far such laws have been passed in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine — and has already passed the House.

The standard argument against labeling is that nothing material would be revealed by disclosing that a product contains GMOs, as no difference in calories, vitamins, toxins, artificial colors or any other nutritional characteristics would be detectable.

The Times' reversal suggests consumers have the right to consider other factors beyond the health consequences of eating GM food.

This about-face reflects a growing desire among consumers to know things like the effect its production has on the people who grow it, the planet we share, and the organisms we eat.

With the public as sensitive as it is about food in general, and GM food in particular, it's inevitable that a fish this crazy is going to be labeled. And as the first GM animal approved for human consumption, it will set an important precedent.

Already, major retailers like Costco, Safeway and Target have pledged to not carry the AquAdvantage salmon, in response to overwhelming consumer demand.

And a day after the Times' editorial, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced its new SmartLabel program, with which consumers will be able to use their smartphones to scan the barcodes of products and learn details about them that space wouldn't allow on a label.

While in its infancy, and with many tweaks and glitches likely in the near-future, this program provides a framework for delivering a wealth of information that could not only inform consumers, but educate them.

It could also address one of the more compelling argument against the labeling of GM foods, that the words "contains GMOs" don't really tell you much.

Those words don't identify which genes would be silenced or amplified, or distinguish between a cloned organism, a transgenic organism with genes from multiple species or one whose DNA was modified with gene editing technology such as CRISPR. But if this level of detail were provided, it could open the door for interested consumers to learn about the nuance, potential drawbacks, and even potential benefits of biotechnology in food.

Of course, that level of nuance isn't exactly what the GMA has in mind. It has long fought against GMO labels, and in feeling that battle slip away has instead pushed for a neat definition of GMO.

Not surprisingly, anti-GMO groups like the Center for Food Safety (CFS) don't like its longtime adversary's Smartlabel idea.

They say it's an industry-preferred alternative to mandatory labels that would put those without smartphones at a disadvantage, and allow companies to invade consumer privacy.

But mandatory labels or not, the advent of the Smartlabel program shows which way the wind is blowing, both in terms of the available technology and in terms of what consumers want.

At the retail and state levels, consumers are making their preferences clear. And retail is following.

A December 2 article by Jerry Hagstrom in the National Review argues that the labeling movement has only barely begun, as consumers want transparency, regardless of what Congress, the FDA, or agribusiness wants.

They ex­pect food com­pan­ies, Hagstrom writes, "...to be more trans­par­ent about the im­pact of food on health and the en­vir­on­ment, food safety, hu­man and labor rights, the treat­ment of an­im­als raised for food, and busi­ness eth­ics in food pro­duc­tion."

And perhaps we could add, "how their food was regulated and approved" to the list of concerns. Indeed, one thing opponents of the AquAdvantage salmon dislike is that it's regulated as a drug by the FDA — rather than a food by USDA — thanks to a loophole provided by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that says a drug includes any substance that is intended to change the structure or function of an organism.

It's hard to dispute that this is a fishy way of regulating the salmon, which is clearly a food and not a drug. It's the kind of backroom finagling that inspires distrust.

As Nathaneal Johnson points out at Grist.org, labels are a way to build trust between food companies and consumers.

"By labeling, food producers show that they understand and respect the feelings of their customers. Labeling would reverse the vicious cycle whereby consumer fear of the unknown pushes companies to fight to preserve their secrecy, which leads to greater fear of the unknown. Companies should respond to ignorance by providing more information, not less," Johnson wrote.

So while Congress mulls the label issue, and pro- and anti- label groups dump millions into advertising on state-level campaigns, the labeling movement marches on, invigorated.

It won't be stopped, because what consumers really want is transparency, and what the food companies want is their money. And labeling proponents can thank AquAdvantage salmon for the early Christmas.

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