Don’t Eat the Mutants: GE Salmon and New Seafood Guidance

Sustainable food advocates are still watching with bated breath to see whether the Food and Drug Administration will really push through the approval of AquAdvantage, a transgenic (read: genetically engineered) salmon for human consumption. Although industry – and the FDA, apparently – would have you think it’s all good to tamper with the genetic makeup of a living animal, concerned citizens and watchdog groups (read: people without a financial or political interest in pushing forward technology that could have unexpected and disastrous impacts on human health, the environment and other sea life) have been singing a different tune.

Last month, activists from Food & Water Watch, Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth and Ben & Jerry’s (who renamed their popular Phish Food ice cream “Something’s Fishy” for the occasion) gathered in front of the White House to draw attention to the issue. Email campaigns asking the agency not to approve the fish whizzed around the internet, including a group effort from that same coalition, which managed to snag over 170,000 signatures. Still, the agency seemed to be on track to approve, so the coalition switched tactics and asked concerned eaters to put some pressure on lawmakers to step in and stop the process. By late last month, eleven US senators, led by Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) had signed on to a letter backed by 50-plus consumer and environmental groups, commercial and recreational fishing associations and business owners.

A lot of people have done some excellent writing about why this is so screwed up, but to recap, besides the fact that just the idea of it is pretty crazy to begin with, the FDA never held a comment period on the fish, looking to pass AquaAdvantage under a Bush-era policy classifying any GE animal as a new veterinary drug, even though the salmon will clearly be produced as a food product. Scientific studies provided by Aquabounty to the FDA were based on a ridiculously small sample size. There was no environmental impact assessment. It is almost a foregone conclusion that some of the fish would escape and threaten native, natural populations. Its approval would also pave the way for other GE animals, including "frankenswine," aka "enviropig," a pig designed for factory farm conditions to emit less phosphate, and this blogger would argue that we still know way too little about the effects of ramming genes into plants, let alone animals.

So now what? The FDA seems hellbent on approving the technology and so far, has not indicated that it would require labeling of GE salmon, but is holding a comment period on this point. It ends November 22. And if money talks, bear in mind that Food & Water Watch has received over $10,000 in donations toward a campaign to stop GE salmon. And they're spending the money well, on an effort to gather another 50,000 letters urging the FDA not only to label the salmon, but also not to approve it at all. FWW assistant director Patty Lovera puts it plainly:

"It is imperative that the FDA halt the rushed and reckless approval process surrounding genetically engineered salmon before this product ends up on consumers' plates. It is equally imperative that the public let the FDA know their concerns about GE salmon and the agency’s shoddy evaluation of this product’s possible impacts on the environment and consumer health before November 22nd -- and let their members of Congress know they don’t want this fish to hit store shelves."

Sadly, the possibility of unlabeled frankenfish isn’t the only creepy news in seafood. A while back, National Geographic reported that warming sea waters are causing herpes in oysters. No, you can’t catch it (phew!) but it could have severe impacts on oyster populations. And of course, there is the oil-tainted Gulf seafood. Back in August, when the first family visited New Orleans, the President had himself a quite public shrimp po' boy, as if to assure us all that Gulf shrimp is nothing to worry about, and I hope he’s right, but the jury is definitely still out on that. Sharing the skepticism? Bear in mind that even in the wake of the largest environmental disaster in US history, seafood from the Gulf is probably still less risky than its imported counterparts, only 2% of which are inspected by the FDA, and most of which comes from countries with even looser guidelines than ours.


But food safety is only one aspect of the “what to eat” question when it comes to seafood. What about bluefin tuna and endangered species? What about the environmental impacts of farm-raised fish like salmon? And what about the socioeconomic impacts of our trade policies and culinary trends?

What’s a seafood lover to do?

Into the murky waters of the modern seafood industry shines a ray of hope, or at least greater clarity, in the form of Food & Water Watch’s recently re-released Seafood Guide. Joining the helpful ranks of Blue Ocean Institute’s Guide to Ocean-Friendly Seafood and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Recommendations, the 2010 Smart Seafood Guide brings, in addition to information on the human health and environmental impacts of specific species, information on their socioeconomic impacts on coastal and fishing communities.

The online version of the new guide includes comprehensive regional information, while the printable version serves as a cheat sheet with suggested substitutions for popular but less sustainable fish, as well as questions to ask and, in the style of the Environmental Working Group’s well-known pesticide guide for fruits and veggies, a “dirty dozen” of fish. Food & Water Watch also encourages consumers to keep abreast of Gulf seafood safety information as it emerges from the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The days of carefree seafood fests may be over, but we don’t have to drift, lost and wondering, either. Consider the Smart Seafood Guide a kind of modern, non-seafaring sextant -- it won’t tell you where to go, but might help you figure out where you ought to.