My turn: 'Frankenfish' puts spotlight on genetically engineered food

Posted: Monday, October 11, 2010

You might have read recently about the genetically engineered monster salmon that grows five times faster than a natural salmon. Dubbed the "Frankenfish," it would be the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption. Although it sounds like science fiction, if the Food and Drug Administration gives it a green light, it could be in grocery stores in just a few years.

While the "Frankenfish" has gobbled a lot of headlines, there is a bigger story concerning genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, the mainstream media have totally missed. This story is the extent to which genetically altered foods have already quietly infiltrated the U.S. food supply. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that approximately 80 percent of the packaged foods on grocery store shelves contain at least one genetically engineered ingredient. The main culprits are soy, corn and canola.

While you might assume these foods were subjected to rigorous testing to prove they were safe before they were allowed on the market - this is not the case. Early on, the FDA decided that genetically modified versions of food crops like soy and corn were no different from their naturally bred counterparts. Hence they did not need to be tested for safety. This determination came despite clear evidence that GMO versions of these crops were different and potentially dangerous.

Not only that, but the FDA has turned a blind eye to mounting evidence that these foods are problematic. Genetically engineered corn and soy have higher levels of allergens, and have been linked to numerous potential health problems. Recently, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine condemned genetically modified organisms and urged all physicians to prescribe non-GMO diets.

The good news is that it just got easier for you to avoid GMO tainted foods. A nonprofit 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 will help shoppers recognize which products meet rigorous GMO avoidance practices. Verified products range from cereal and snacks to soy beverage products.

The Non-GMO project has also produced a Shopping Guide. This guide 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

Supporters of the Non-GMO Project have designated October as Non-GMO month. The idea is to raise awareness about the prevalence of GMO's in our food supply and what we can do as consumers to avoid them. A related objective is to educate the public about the implications of the industrialization of our food supply. In support of that effort, there will be a local showing of the film "Food Inc." at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center at 7 p.m. on Friday. It is free, and everyone is welcome.

Getting back to the story of the "Frankenfish," it now appears that this misbegotten idea can still be nipped in the bud. At the FDA's recent hearings, things did not go swimmingly for AquaBounty, the developer of the genetically engineered "AquAdvantage Salmon." Instead of the slam-dunk approval the company was expecting, the FDA decided to delay its decision. And no wonder. The company's evidence supporting the safety of the fish bordered on laughable.

One safety expert, Dr. Michael Hansen, of the Consumers Union, noted: "The data and analysis of food safety risks from the AquAdvantage Salmon are so sloppy and inadequate that, if this were an undergraduate paper, it would get a failing grade. No self-respecting scientist could conclude that these data demonstrate that AquAdvantage salmon are safe to eat."

The "Frankenfish" story has also gotten the attention of Congress, and several members have signed a petition urging the FDA to deny approval of the "AquAdvantage Salmon" until we know more about its safety and environmental impact. Alaska's senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski have both gone on record in opposition of the genetically engineered salmon. With a little prodding from the public and Congress, perhaps the FDA will get it right this time and genetically engineered animals on our dinner plate will remain a while longer in the realm of science fiction.

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

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