National Policy

Poor Labeling Guidelines Bring Frankenfish One Step Closer To Market

You may start to see these labels on food packaging soon. The date for mandatory compliance with the new standard is January 1, 2022. Image via USDA.

In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AquaBounty Technologies’ bioengineered (BE), i.e. genetically engineered or genetically modified, salmon for human food consumption – the first approval of its kind. Since 2016, though, BE salmon has been under a U.S. import ban, preventing AquaBounty from domestic production of its salmon because the eggs originate in Canada. Now, after an FDA announcement made last week, AquaBounty is one step closer to bringing its fish to market.

A Controversial Fish

Currently, only farm-raised Atlantic salmon is available in U.S. markets, but AquaBounty has taken farm-raised to a new level. The company’s “AquAdvantage Salmon” is modified to grow faster by placing a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and a promoter gene from ocean pout into Atlantic salmon. As a result, the modified fish reach market size in 16-18 months compared to a typical 28-36 months.

AquaBounty’s salmon – often referred to as “Frankenfish”– has long been a controversial product. Soon after FDA-approval, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the agency (still pending), and some major grocery stores – including Safeway, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Aldi – committed to not selling BE salmon. A recent story in National Fishermen says, “We have no way of knowing whether Frankenfish will be safe for consumption over long periods of time or in what amounts, because those things are neither verifiable nor are they part of the process of approval.”

Congress originally mandated the import ban on BE salmon until federal labeling guidelines were developed so that consumers could make informed food purchases. In December 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalized the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which “requires food manufacturers, importers, and certain retailers to ensure bioengineered food are appropriately disclosed.” Controversially, the FDA announced last week that the USDA’s Standard meets the Congressional mandate and the import ban was lifted.

Know Your Food

Opinions on bioengineered foods aside, consumers should be able to know where their food comes from, but the USDA’s Standard does not require clear-cut labeling. According to the USDA, “Regulated entities have several disclosure options: text, symbol, electronic or digital link, and/or text message. Additional options such as a phone number or web address are available to small food manufacturers or for small and very small packages.” Given such a wide variety of labels, it’s hard to believe that companies will choose to clearly label their BE products, but rather opt for a more discrete link or code, if there is any concern about product marketability. As a result, these guidelines wrongly place an extra burden on the consumer.

Now to be fair, we don’t yet know how AquaBounty will label its salmon, but unfortunately, disclosure issues are not new to the seafood industry. In 2016, Oceana revealed that restaurants, seafood markets, and grocery stores across the globe were mislabeling fish as the wrong species. Another more recent investigation by the non-profit revealed 20% of 449 sampled fish were labeled incorrectly.

Bioengineered or not, when it comes to seafood, it’s clear that consumers need to take steps to educate themselves. A great first place to start is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program where you can find recommendations for seafood that has less impact on the environment. Also, try to find local pier-to-plate programs that supply fresh, local catch and support local fishing communities. And if you’re eating out don’t be afraid to ask your server “what’s in the fish sandwich?” or “where does the fish come from?”.


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