Reading between the lines: FDA indicates consumer preference not a reason for salmon labeling

FDA hosted a hearing on Tuesday, September 21 to discuss the hypothetical labeling of genetically engineered (GE) salmon. Just fifteen hours earlier the FDA finished hearing the debate on GE salmon approval, which gave the impression that FDA was moving faster on the issue than it actually is.  This compressed schedule caused frustration among experts, leading George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety to say “it is inappropriate to hold hearings on labeling before [GE salmon] are approved.”

In oral statements made before the FDA panel, Food and Water Watch (FWW) speaker Patty Lovera and the Alexis Baden-Mayer of Organic Consumers Association were not in favor of GE salmon, although if approved, Lovera recommended mandatory labeling of GE salmon. When pushed by the FDA panel on the material reasons for labeling, pro-labeling advocates often cited a lack of data on allergenicity of GE salmon or consumer preference. In a major break with other consumer advocacy groups, Gregory Jaffe from the Center for Science in the Public Interest indicated a preference for no GE labeling.

Salmon fillets in the grocery store (source: http://www.ctbites.com/home/2009/10/14/the-fresh-market-opens-in-westport.html)

Salmon fillets in the grocery store (source: http://www.ctbites.com/home/2009/10/14/the-fresh-market-opens-in-westport.html)

If GE salmon is approved, the FDA has indicated that labeling will be based only on material differences in GE salmon compared to non-GE salmon, and not based on consumer preferences for GE labeling. These views may not be consistent with surveys that show 70% of American consumers want GE food to be labeled, from data reported by Jaffe.

Industry groups, including Richard Carnevale of Animal Health Institute, stood in line to argue that there were no material reasons why GE salmon should be labeled. The CEO of AquaBounty, Richard Clothier gave a series of other arguments against mandatory labeling, including the “slippery slope” that may lead to labeling of all GE foods and if labeling “complicated the process it would be a pity.” It appears that all stakeholders, including the FDA, realize this is a complicated process, and are willing to work through the difficult decisions.

If GE salmon is approved, consumers will have the ultimate say in its success. Salmon is the 3rd most consumed seafood product in the US and its popularity and high market price will likely continue,whether or not consumers know what kind of salmon they are eating.  It remains to be seen if the aquaculture industry realizes that the rising interest in communicating where and how our food is raised may be a benefit as opposed to a liability.    Elliot Entis, the founder of AquaBounty, indicated he would be in favor of voluntary labeling as a type of product branding. Entis was in favor of calling their salmon “Panama Reds,” although one can only wonder if this is just a red herring.

– Dave Love