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Major US retailers reject 'frankenfish'

Published time: March 22, 2013 16:54
AFP Photo / Frank Perry

AFP Photo / Frank Perry

A number of top US grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, have pledged to reject selling the genetically engineered “frankenfish” if it is allowed on the market in April.

The mutant fish was engineered by scientists at a company called AquaBounty, which has spent more than 15 years and $50 million researching and perfecting the frankenfish. The mutants can grow to market size in 16-18 months, rather than the usual 30 months required for the Atlantic salmon. The Food and Drug Administration began its approval process in 2010, and in December decided that the fish is safe enough to be consumed.

The FDA is still conducting its final review of the genetically engineered salmon and retailers expect it to be on store shelves soon. But a coalition of consumer, health, food safety and fishing groups representing more than 2,000 US stores have taken a stand against GE fish and have pledged not to sell it, due to safety concerns and unanswered questions about consuming genetically engineered products.

Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Whole Foods, and Marsh are some of the stores that will refuse to put the frankenfish on its shelves.

“We won't sell genetically engineered fish because we don’t believe it is sustainable or healthy,” Trudy Bialic from PCC Natural Markets in Washington State told Consumer’s Union. “It is troubling that the FDA is recommending approval of AquaBounty’s salmon as a ‘new animal drug,’ subjecting these engineered creatures to less rigorous safety standards than food additives. That’s not a credible safety assessment.”

Stores like Walmart, Costco and Safeway, however, have not expressed any opposition to selling the mutant salmon, which is likely to be cheaper due to its expedited growth.

AquaBounty has been trying to obtain FDA approval for the frankenfish for the past 17 years, but their engineering has come with a wave of opposition from people concerned about the possible long-term effects of consuming a genetically engineered fish. The fish contains DNA from the eelpout, a ray-finned fish that resembles an eel with its elongated body. Scientists have long been studying the eelpout to see if it can be used to accelerate growth rates of other fish or even to preserve human tissue and organs. But if the FDA allows the mutant salmon on store shelves, it will be the first ever genetically engineered animal deemed safe for consumption.

Scientists are concerned that the FDA has been lax about its decision and might be making a mistake by allowing grocery stores to sell such a creature.

"There are still unanswered safety and nutritional questions and the quality of the data that was submitted to the FDA was the worst stuff I've ever seen submitted for a GMO,” Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen told Alternet in early 2013. “There's stuff there that couldn't make it through a high school science class.”

It is likely that the FDA will not label the genetically engineered fish as having been scientifically manipulated. Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, is afraid that consumers won’t recognize the mutant fish on store shelves and purchase the produce without knowing where it came from – even if they would otherwise have a problem with consuming such a questionable species.

“Most consumers don't want to eat genetically engineered salmon, but without mandatory labeling it will be hard for them to avoid,” she told Consumers Union. “That's why the stores who have committed to not to sell genetically engineered seafood are making a smart move and giving their customers what they want -- a way to avoid this controversial, unnecessary biotech fish.”

But despite the wave of opposition by non-GMO campaigners, “not a single new scientific or legal argument has been presented to the FDA,” AquaBounty CEO Dr. Ronald Stotish told FoodNavigator. He expects the engineered fish to be on the market by late 2013.

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