A salmon and a politician walk into a bar…. By now, you’ve probably heard Obama’s salmon joke. The joke that’s got the Internet abuzz. The joke that, it turns out, may be the most memorable part of the president’s State of the Union address.
All joking aside though, the president was making an important point about the bureaucratic, often convoluted nature of our food regulatory system. When it comes to salmon, something fishy is going on.
“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked,” Obama quipped.
If smoking a salmon leads to such complicated regulation, what regulation occurs when the fish’s DNA is dramatically altered? Unfortunately, this has become a real question. And the answer’s not funny.
Genetically engineered (GE) salmon, produced by a company called AquaBounty, is set to become the first GE food animal. The federal agency charged with approving or rejecting GE salmon is the FDA. And final approval could come at any moment now, despite the fact that over 90 percent of consumers polled said they would not eat GE meat.
Even more disturbing, if the fish were approved tomorrow, it appears unlikely that the FDA would require labeling. Imagine going to the grocery store and not knowing if the fish you’re about to buy is genetically engineered or natural.
But why does it matter? So what if it is genetically engineered?
It matters because of the largely secretive, sketchy regulatory process the FDA has employed in reviewing the frankenfish.
Consumer health advocates and others in the know are alarmed by this approval process. And even government officials at agencies like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services are warning of environmental disaster, stating, “Maybe they [the FDA] should watch Jurassic Park.”
Why? Because the FDA lacks an up-to-date method for assessing GE salmon’s impact on consumer health. They’ve analyzed the fish as a “veterinary drug,” not a food product. Three of the four studies the agency based its review on were non-peer-reviewed and conducted by AquaBounty itself (the very company that would benefit from producing the fish).
Furthermore, The FDA has failed to address critical issues surrounding the potential for escaped, genetically engineered salmon to impact wild salmon populations. The agency should conduct an environmental impact statement, required by law under the National Environmental Policy Act, for any regulatory action that could negatively affect the human environment.
And here’s a sobering fact. Over the last decade, the biotechnology industry has spent over half a billion pushing controversial products like GE food. Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions and lobbying expenditures by biotechnology interests more than doubled during this time.
While the president’s joke was admittedly funny, it’s also disturbingly true. The regulatory process surrounding salmon is complicated, and genetically engineering salmon complicates it even further, to the point where we as consumers are kept in the dark until the day this science experiment ends up at our grocery store or local fish market.
Photo credit: Eric Kilby via flickr
By Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch