Reporting from Washington — Beyond sharp and predictable differences over whether genetically engineered salmon belongs in the food supply, a rough consensus emerged Tuesday at a Food and Drug Administration hearing on labeling requirements: If the fish is approved for market, consumers should have a way to avoid it.
The sticking point: Who should alert consumers that the fish has been genetically altered?
The unusual hearing to collect public comment on potential labeling requirements followed a meeting Monday at which a panel of outside experts generally seemed persuaded by the FDA's preliminary conclusions that AquaBounty Technologies Inc.'s salmon is safe to eat and poses little risk to the environment. But the committee recommended more study.
The committee's caution and the FDA's willingness to convene a meeting to discuss labeling — which the agency says it's not required to do — reflect the stakes:
If approved by the FDA, AquaBounty's salmon would be the country's first commercial genetically engineered food animal.
Opponents insisted on a straightforward solution: Require that fish producers label the salmon as genetically engineered.
But FDA rules prohibit labeling food solely on the basis of how it was produced. The agency requires labeling only of a "material difference" resulting from a production process, such as a difference in texture or nutrient content — not the process itself.
So far, the agency has not found any differences that would require the AquaBounty salmon to be specially labeled.
AquaBounty's salmon grows to market weight in half the time it takes ordinary salmon because it includes a gene from an eel-like creature that prompts it to grow during the winter as well as the summer. The company plans to market the eggs to fish farmers.
Michael Landa, acting director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the agency was not seeking to change its labeling rules, but recognized that the unique nature of AquaBounty's application had generated intense interest.
"We're presenting an opportunity for people to explain to us if there are material differences, [and] if so, what they are and how they might be disclosed," Landa said.
Elliot Entis, founder of Waltham, Mass.-based AquaBounty, said a mandatory label would be unfair because consumers would interpret it as a warning.
Entis said he supported voluntary labeling by producers whose fish is not genetically engineered.
Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch argued that voluntary labeling is needlessly complex and puts too much of a burden on consumers and producers of ordinary salmon.
"It's a messy, messy area to put this on a voluntary labeling scheme," she said.
Lovera and several other speakers said they disagreed with the FDA's conclusion that the fish are essentially the same and urged the agency to require a label specifying AquaBounty's engineered origins so consumers could decide whether or not to buy it.
But the FDA says consumer interest alone cannot determine label content.
For example, in the 1990s, the FDA rejected demands by some consumer and farm groups to require milk producers to disclose whether their milk came from cows given genetically modified hormones. When some producers labeled their milk hormone-free, the FDA required them to add that the agency had found no difference in milk from treated and untreated cows.
Bruce Chassy, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, said the FDA had no grounds to mandate a label for the AquaBounty salmon. Voluntary labeling could effectively guide consumers, he said, as long as they are willing to bear the cost in the form of potentially higher prices.
"It's not free," he said at the hearing.
Chassy said later that the FDA may settle on a labeling program similar to that used for milk: It could allow fish producers to label their salmon as non-genetically engineered as long as they included a disclaimer that the FDA considers the altered fish no different from ordinary salmon.
A final decision on the salmon and its labeling appears to be months away. Tuesday's hearing marked the beginning of a 60-day period for further public comment on what an AquaBounty salmon label should or shouldn't say.