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Published October 05, 2010, 09:08 AM

Caution is good, but is a label necessary for genetically altered foods?

WASHINGTON — If a genetically engineered salmon is cleared for America’s supermarkets, it will be because of convincing evidence the fish is safe to eat and not harmful to the environment.

WASHINGTON — If a genetically engineered salmon is cleared for America’s supermarkets, it will be because of convincing evidence the fish is safe to eat and not harmful to the environment. Scientific review to date shows the fish to be indistinguishable from its traditional counterpart. So demands that the altered fish be required to carry a government label seem to be more an attempt to scare off consumers than an effort to provide necessary health or nutritional information. Clearly, there must be caution in approving the first genetically altered animal for human consumption, but government regulators should stick to their long-held, sensible rules about what information must be disclosed for the public good.

The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to approve a fast-growing salmon developed in the past two decades by a biotech company from Massachusetts. The AquAdvantage salmon has been modified to include a gene from the Chinook salmon and DNA from an eel-like fish so that it grows twice as fast as conventional salmon. The FDA recently concluded two days of public hearings, and the expectation — based on data showing that the salmon pose no risks to humans or the environment — is that it is just a matter of time before the fish will be marketed. What has emerged as the hot-button issue is labeling and the implications of that for other genetically engineered animal products likely to follow.

‘Right to know’

A number of consumer groups pushing for mandatory labeling say that people have a right to know if the food they are eating comes from products that have been genetically modified. The not-so-subtle suggestion, of course, is that there is something different — or even wrong — with genetically modified food products, despite the science showing otherwise.

The food labeling rules, which have been tested in the courts, are properly focused on safety and nutrition and not on aspects of production such as, say, whether the product is the result of artificial insemination or cross breeding. Voluntary labeling is allowed as long as it is not false or misleading, so producers of conventionally raised salmon can publicize that fact as long as they do so truthfully. Public comment still is being accepted by FDA officials, who say that they will study the record before issuing a ruling. They are right to be careful and to base their decision on proven facts, not unfounded fears.

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