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My Turn: Frankenfoods need to be labeled

Posted: October 25, 2011 - 11:00pm

Just in time for Halloween, prepare for “The Return of the Frankenfish.” It sounds like a bad horror movie. This monster salmon, genetically engineered to grow five times faster than a normal fish, was last heard from a year ago. At that time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was inviting [filtered word] comment on whether to approve it for human consumption.

During that comment period, feedback was overwhelmingly negative. Thousands of citizens, including hundreds of Alaskans, objected to the transgenic fish, citing concerns about its safety. It was widely noted that research supporting the fish was laughably weak, and mostly funded by the company seeking to have it approved. Many people also warned of the potential negative impact on the ecosystem and wild salmon stocks should the “Frankenfish” ever escape.

Apparently, the decision makers at FDA were not swayed by public testimony. Two weeks ago, the agency completed its interagency review and gave genetically modified salmon the thumbs-up. If the Office of Management and Budget follows suit, the so called “AquaAdvantage” salmon would be the first transgenic animal approved for human consumption.

Most Alaskans are acutely aware of the foolishness of risking the viability of wild salmon stocks for a genetically engineered farmed salmon that is inferior in every way. Our Alaskan congressional delegation stands united in opposition, and has introduced legislation that would ban the commercialization of genetically engineered salmon, and failing that, require its labeling.

To put things in context though, FDA’s approval of the Frankenfish was hardly a big surprise to anyone familiar with the agency’s long-term infatuation with genetically engineered foods. Nearly 20 years ago, FDA rejected the advice of its own scientists and gave the green light to the first genetically engineered food crops.

Since then, genetically modified soy, corn, canola, and beet sugar have quietly infiltrated our food supply. Today the overwhelming majority of packaged foods sold in this country have some genetically modified ingredients. Most consumers are only dimly aware of the presence of genetically modified foods in their diets, because these foods are not required to be labeled.

Whatever your opinion about genetically modified foods, it is hard to argue against labeling them. Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union recently noted: “Polls show that consumers demand transparency in the foods they buy and overwhelmingly support the labeling of genetically engineered food. In order to make informed decisions, the public deserves a truthful marketplace.”

Fortunately, a sliver of truth is entering the marketplace, at least for shoppers who want the assurance that their foods do not contain GMO’s. A non-profit educational organization called the Non-GMO Project has established America’s first third party non-GMO verified label—the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal. This label helps shoppers recognize products that meet rigorous GMO avoidance practices. The Non-GMO verified label has been popping up on hundreds of foods in the last year. Non-GMO foods were recently identified as one of the fastest growing categories in the natural products industry.

The Non-GMO project has also produced a shopping guide that lists the most common crops and derivative ingredients to avoid. It also lists all the brands that are currently enrolled as non-GMO verified. The Guide is regularly updated. It can be downloaded for free at www.nongmoproject.org. In addition the project has developed a free guide for your smart phone.

A final bit of good news on the labeling front: Earlier this month a huge coalition of non-profit organizations, businesses and trade associations submitted a legal petition to FDA requesting the agency require labeling of GMO foods. Although it is a longshot, it is certainly a chance to let the FDA know that the public is paying attention. Nancy Hirshberg of Stoneyfield Farm, one of the campaign’s coordinators, says, “our goal is to break the record for the number of public comments submitted to FDA. We want to send a message to Washington that people care deeply about this issue.”

To submit comments to the FDA supporting the labeling petition, visit www.justlabelit.org. And have a Happy Halloween.

• Ottoson lives in Juneau and has a longtime interest in food and health. He owns Rainbow Foods.

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