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Labeling of genetically modified food back after failure of I-522

The push to label genetically modified organisms – termed GMOs – is back on the table in Olympia.

But the focus is on genetically engineered, or transgenic, fish. A transgenic animal has had one animal's DNA spliced with another to create an animal with new characteristics.

House Bill 2143 proposes to ensure that consumers will know exactly what kind of fish they are purchasing at the supermarket – whether it's farm-raised, wild-caught or "genetically engineered."

Before a Jan. 17 hearing on the bill in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, bill sponsor Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, said he plans to introduce two amendments that would more clearly define several terms in the proposed legislation.

Under the amendments, the bill's definition of genetically engineered would be changed to "transgenic" and it would target only fish raised in natural freshwater, such as lakes and streams, rather than enclosed tanks. The changes would address two concerns raised at the hearing by John Dentler of Troutlodge, the oldest aquaculture company in Washington.

Troutlodge, headquartered in Bonney Lake, Pierce County, produces triploid trout eggs. With three sets of chromosomes instead of two, the fish are sterile.

Dentler says the bill is vague in its definitions and it doesn't address the triploid fish. Dentler also said that the bill's definition of "state waters" is not defined well enough and may encompass fish research performed by the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Prior to the hearing, Condotta recognized these concerns and said they would be addressed in the coming amendments. However, the bill would still prohibit the production of transgenic fish in freshwater net pens.

One concern the bill aims to address is the risk of transgenic fish escaping into native-fish habitats. Condotta said he questions the sterility of the transgenic fish and doesn't want to take the chance of them escaping and possibly crossbreeding with other salmon.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve genetically engineered fish for human consumption, but some in the industry expect that policy to change soon.

AquaBounty Technologies, based in Massachusetts, is producing its genetically engineered fish, AquAdvantage Salmon, at a facility in Canada because Environment Canada, that country's government agency on everything related to the environment, said they pose no risk to the environment. This decision was recently challenged by Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society, two non-profit activist groups in Canada. The lawsuit says Environment Canada acted "unlawfully" when they approved AquaBounty's product.

AquaBounty is seeking FDA approval to raise transgenic salmon in the United States for human consumption.

The fish would all be sterile females and would be produced in landlocked freshwater tanks, FDA spokesperson Theresa Eisenman said.

AquaBounty's method of altering the DNA of the Atlantic salmon is to take a growth gene from the Chinook salmon and "splice" it with the DNA of the Atlantic salmon This creates a fish that reaches maturity much faster than its natural counterparts, and therefore can be sold for food more quickly.

AquaBounty's website says its fish should not be labeled "genetically engineered" because "the nutritional and biological composition of AquAdvantage salmon is identical to Atlantic salmon."

The FDA agrees.

"In September 2010...based on the data and information received to date, food from AquAdvantage salmon appears to be as safe to eat as farmed, conventionally bred Atlantic salmon," Eisenman said.

Condotta disagrees.

"This is not similar," he said. "This is a different product entirely and it should require its own label."

Some large retailers such as Target, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have stated they won't sell the transgenic fish even if the FDA approves it.

Washington's existing fish-farming industry also has concerns, Condotta said.

"People might reject farmed fish not knowing if they are buying GMO," he said.

However, at the hearing on Friday, Alan Cook of Icicle Seafoods said he was opposed to the bill, even though they have no plans to rear transgenic fish.

"It's already prohibited according to state regulations," he said. "This law is not required."

The production of transgenic fish is already banned in Washington's marine waters, said John Kerwin, fish health program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Kerwin said that this bill would extend WAC 220-76-100 to include freshwater.

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, has introduced an identical bill, Senate Bill 6184. She also testified at the hearing Friday.

"It's vital that we send the message to the federal government that we do not want this 'new animal drug' turned loose in our market," Chase said.

The FDA has classified genetically modified animals as a "new animal drug." Some in the industry say this categorization is its own problem.

""They [the FDA] doesn't have the framework for genetically engineered animals," said Trudy Bialic, spokesperson for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. "This is a gross concern," she continued. "The criteria for the assessment is less strict than for food additives."

Bialic was also a strong supporter for Initiative 522, the GMO Initiative, but believes this more narrow approach will be a better fit for Washington.

Condotta said he hopes consumers will be more supportive of this bill because it focuses on fish, rather than all GMOs. Last year, Washington voters rejected I-522, 49 to 51 percent.

 

Rebecca Gourley writes for the WNPA Olympia News Service.

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