GMO issue back on the table – this time about fish

Rebecca Gourley

WNPA Olympia News Service

The push to label genetically modified organisms – termed GMOs – is back on the table in Olympia. But the focus is on genetically engineered, or transgenic, fish.

A transgenic animal has had one animal’s DNA spliced with another to create an animal with new characteristics.

House Bill 2143 proposes to ensure that consumers will know exactly what kind of fish they are purchasing at the supermarket – whether it’s farm-raised, wild-caught or “genetically engineered.”

Before a Jan. 17 hearing on the bill in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, bill sponsor Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, said he plans to introduce two amendments that would more clearly define several terms in the proposed legislation.

Under the amendments, the bill’s definition of genetically engineered would be changed to “transgenic” and it would target only fish raised in natural freshwater, such as lakes and streams, rather than enclosed tanks.

The changes would address two concerns raised at the hearing by John Dentler of Troutlodge, the oldest aquaculture company in Washington. Troutlodge, headquartered in Bonney Lake, Pierce County, produces triploid trout eggs. With three sets of chromosomes instead of two, the fish are sterile.

Dentler says the bill is vague in its definitions and it doesn’t address the triploid fish. Dentler also said that the bill’s definition of “state waters” is not defined well enough and may encompass fish research performed by the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Prior to the hearing, Condotta recognized these concerns and said they would be addressed in the coming amendments. However, the bill would still prohibit the production of transgenic fish in freshwater net pens.

One concern the bill aims to address is the risk of transgenic fish escaping into native-fish habitats. Condotta said he questions the sterility of the transgenic fish and doesn’t want to take the chance of them escaping and possibly crossbreeding with other salmon.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve genetically engineered fish for human consumption, but some in the industry expect that policy to change soon.

AquaBounty Technologies, based in Massachusetts, is producing its genetically engineered fish, AquAdvantage Salmon, at a facility in Canada because Environment Canada, that country’s government agency on everything related to the environment, said they pose no risk to the environment.

This decision was recently challenged by Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society, two non-profit activist groups in Canada. The lawsuit says Environment Canada acted “unlawfully” when they approved AquaBounty’s product.

AquaBounty is seeking FDA approval to raise transgenic salmon in the United States for human consumption. The fish would all be sterile females and would be produced in landlocked freshwater tanks, FDA spokesperson Theresa Eisenman said.

AquaBounty's method of altering the DNA of the Atlantic salmon is to take a growth gene from the Chinook salmon and "splice" it with the DNA of the Atlantic salmon This creates a fish that reaches maturity much faster than its natural counterparts, and therefore can be sold for food more quickly.

AquaBounty’s website says its fish should not be labeled "genetically engineered" because "the nutritional and biological composition of AquAdvantage salmon is identical to Atlantic salmon.”

The FDA agrees.

"In September 2010…based on the data and information received to date, food from AquAdvantage salmon appears to be as safe to eat as farmed, conventionally bred Atlantic salmon," Eisenman said.

Condotta disagrees.

"This is not similar,” he said. “This is a different product entirely and it should require its own label."

Some large retailers such as Target, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have stated they won't sell the transgenic fish even if the FDA approves it.

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