Here is an intriguing recipe: Take an ordinary Atlantic salmon, add hormones from a Chinook salmon and an eel-like fish called an ocean pout, and voila! You have a super-sized salmon, one that grows twice as fast as normal.
This recipe has the producers of the fish, the Massachusetts firm AquaBounty Technologies, salivating, promising as it does a plump product in record time.
It also has its critics, who have questioned whether it is safe for all consumers and who have raised concerns about its effect on the environment.
The Food and Drug Administration is deciding whether the fish should go on the market. If approved, it would be the first genetically altered animal approved for consumption in the United States.
Yet it appears that it is going to be a while before this super-salmon is on America's supper table. Eleven U.S. senators, including Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, wrote to the FDA asserting that it used the wrong process to evaluate the fish, treating it as a new veterinary drug and not as a new animal that humans eat. So far, the FDA has not responded to the senators. But in the past the FDA has said the evaluation method — which looks at the safety of each component of the process — is time-tested science. Essentially, if the compounds that make up the salmon are safe to eat, the fish is OK.
Opponents of the fast-growing salmon (dubbed AquAdvantage by the company producing it) contend that more research is needed before putting it in the nation's food supply; they seem especially concerned about the need for independent research into potential allergic reactions. They also spell out nightmarish scenarios, warning that if these larger, genetically modified salmon escape from the pens they are raised in, the escapees could wipe out the population of smaller, wild salmon. This isn't an idle concern; nature has a way of evading our attempts to contain it, and not just in "Jurassic Park."
Still another looming question is how to label these fish if they are ruled safe to eat. Advocacy groups, such as the Food and Water Watch, say that the least the FDA could do is to require the producers to label it as "genetically engineered." Then the consumer can decide whether to buy the product or not.
The FDA contends, however, that a genetically engineered food product must be materially different — in taste, nutrition or safety — before labeling is required.
This seems like flawed logic. If a genetically engineered salmon grows twice as fast as a wild salmon, it is materially different and should be labeled as such. Producers should be proud of how they raise their fish, not hide it.
Genetically engineered food products are part of our future. When managed correctly, they can be an economical source of good nutrition.
But getting the public to accept them and put them on their supper tables will occur only when the producers tell consumers more, not less, about where the food comes from.