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State Takes Dim View of GloFish, Bans Sale

December 04, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

California's Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday refused to allow the sale of the genetically altered GloFish in the state, with one commissioner saying that it seemed frivolous to tinker with an animal's genes to create a pet that glows red.

The 3-1 vote to reject a petition by biotech entrepreneurs makes California the only state that has banned the sale of GloFish, a trademarked tropical zebra fish infused with the red fluorescent gene of a sea anemone.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over bioengineered animals, has not indicated whether it will step in and regulate the pet fish, which are due to go on sale next month.

"We're going forward with sales elsewhere on Jan. 5," said Alan York, executive officer of Yorktown Technologies of Austin, Texas. "It's unfortunate that consumers in California will be the only ones in the country that will not be able to enjoy these fish."

To approve the sales in California, the commissioners would have had to make an exception to rules adopted earlier this year that restrict transgenic fish to scientific researchers who obtain permits and prove that their gene-alerted fish cannot escape into the wild or pose a danger to the environment.

The commissioners seemed less concerned about any environmental risk than the ethical concerns of altering the genes for the pleasure of pet owners.

"For me, it becomes a question of values," said Commissioner Sam Schuchat. "Under what circumstances do we want to monkey around with the genome of an organism? It seems OK to me to do it for medical research or, say, to create an improved type of rice that has Vitamin A. But to do it for a pet seems rather frivolous."

Schuchat and other commissioners did not express concerns about the environmental consequences if the zebra fish escape. The freshwater fish, which come from the tropical waters of the Ganges River in India, do not easily survive in the cooler waters of California's lakes and streams.

California adopted its regulations for fear that transgenic farmed fish, such as salmon, could get loose and devastate the state's wild populations. The normally black-and-silver zebra fish were inserted with genes from sea anemones or jellyfish to turn them red or green, and glow under black or ultraviolet lights.

The commissioners acknowledged that Californians could readily buy the fish in any neighboring state and bring them home.

"We might be the only state that doesn't do it because we're the only smart ones," Commissioner Bob Hattoy said at the meeting in Sacramento. "We're trying to regulate a whole new field of science."

Schuchat and Hattoy said they were lobbied more heavily by GloFish opponents and proponents than on virtually any other issue.

"Welcome to the future. Here we are, playing around with the genetic bases of life," Schuchat said. He said he even consulted his rabbi, among others, before reaching his decision. "At the end of the day, I just don't think it's right to produce a new organism just to be a pet.

"To me, this seems like an abuse of the power we have over life, and I'm not prepared to go there today."

Commission President Michael Flores was the only member to support the exemption.

California residents buy 25 million of the 200 million ornamental fish sold across the nation each year, Blake said. He estimated that Californians might have purchased 2 million of the genetically altered fish each year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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