CHICAGO (Reuters) - A battle over whether the U.S. government should require special labels for genetically modified foods is set to heat up after a type of salmon on Thursday became the first biotech animal approved for human consumption.
Activists who argue that the farm-raised salmon poses risks to the environment and public health say its clearance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will galvanize opponents to press for the fish to be labeled as genetically engineered.
Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups plan to send letters to the FDA and members of Congress calling for a law that requires labels. The groups have already successfully lobbied major companies like and Kroger Co and Safeway Ltd to say they will ban GMO salmon from their stores.
“The labeling battle is a particularly big deal,” said Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “People have a right to know what they’re eating.”
Companies that produce food with genetically modified (GMO) ingredients worry that mandated labels could reduce consumer demand and increase costs.
The first supplies of GMO salmon, which will be engineered by AquaBounty Technologies Inc to grow faster than conventional fish, will likely arrive in U.S. supermarkets in two years or more, after being raised in facilities in Canada and Panama, Chief Executive Ronald Stotish told Reuters.
He said the company will follow the FDA’s rules, which do not require special labeling because the agency says the salmon is nutritionally equivalent to conventional, farm-raised Atlantic salmon.
If a company opts to label GMO salmon, the agency suggested wording such as, “This salmon patty was made from Atlantic salmon produced using modern biotechnology.”
Sellers of other salmon may want to label products as being not genetically engineered (GE) if they “want to assist consumers in avoiding confusion about the limited scope of fish products on the market that are genetically engineered,” the FDA said.
The agency is accepting public comments on its voluntary labeling guidelines for 60 days starting on Nov. 23.
“We recognize that some consumers are interested in knowing whether food ingredients are derived from GE sources,” said Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The FDA’s clearance of GMO salmon “will energize people to fight and demand more labeling,” said Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist for the Consumers Union, who opposed the approval.
In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a hotly debated measure that blocks any mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered crops, including pre-empting a state law set to take effect next year in Vermont. The vote was a victory for food and agricultural companies that say mandatory labeling would burden them with unwieldy costs and requirements.
Since 2005, a state law in Alaska has required GMO fish to be “conspicuously labeled,” although the measure never needed to be used. Fishermen would like to see a similar federal law so that consumers know what they are eating, said Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
More grocery store bans on GMO salmon would help ensure that customers do not unknowingly eat the fish, said Patty Lovera, assistant director for Food & Water Watch.
“It’s an imperfect way, but it’s what they leave us with when they don’t require labeling,” she said about the government. (Additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen)