Representatives hope to appease concerned fisheries with revamped GMO legislation

Published on Wed, Feb 19, 2014 by Rebecca Gourley/WNPA News Service

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Fish farms in Washington are still not happy with an updated bill that would require labeling of transgenic fish. Transgenic is a form of genetic engineering where the DNA is “spliced” to create more desirable traits.

Although the new bill only addresses labeling and not the production of these fish, the industry opposes it.

Representative Cary Condotta (R-East Wenatchee) originally filed House Bill 2143, which would prohibit the production of genetically modified finfish and would require them to be labeled when sent to supermarket shelves to be purchased as food by consumers.

Condotta has since filed House Bill 2630, which has similar language but one big difference: It doesn’t prohibit production of transgenic fish.

Condotta said that because the production of transgenic fish is already banned in Washington’s marine waters, including a ban in the bill was unnecessary. But people in Washington support the labeling of transgenic fish, he said, so it’s an issue that legislators should address.

The simplified bill will also be better for the state’s aquaculture industry, because they should be concerned about their products getting mistaken for transgenic products, he said.

After listening to fish farmers criticize his original bill at a January 17 hearing before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Condotta said he was surprised by their opposition.

“We thought that the farm fishermen would be on our side,” he said, considering that several aquaculture companies have said they have no plans to rear transgenic fish in the future.

However, no support of the bill came from Troutlodge, an aquaculture company based in Bonney Lake, southeast of Tacoma.

Company representative John Dentler testified at the January 17 hearing that the bill’s definition of genetically engineered was too vague. The way it was originally written, he said, the bill could encompass some of his company’s most important products as well.

Troutlodge produces triploid trout eggs, which require a form of genetic engineering. These fish eggs have three chromosomes instead of two, making them sterile. The process to do this varies but a common practice is to apply pressure to the eggs and put them in a warm-water bath, which is not a transgenic process.

Troutlodge also has other techniques to produce their trout-egg products.

“We use genetic selection to improve [fish generations],” Dentler said. Breeders select fish based on their growth rates and other characteristics and continue to breed those to get a better product – just like dog breeders mate specific dogs to produce offspring with preferred characteristics such as color or size.

Because Troutlodge uses a form of genetic engineering, changing the terms in the bill to read transgenic should allay their concerns about the bill, Condotta said.

But Dentler says simplicity isn’t necessarily better. The general idea behind the bill – labeling – is what has them concerned.

“We are not supportive of state-by-state food labeling,” Dentler said.

Troutlodge, Dentler says, ships its fish products all over the U.S. and the world. Keeping up with labeling requirements that vary from state to state is difficult and expensive.

But Condotta insists that labeling farmed fish will actually be good for the industry. He said consumer worries about genetically modified organism (GMO) products such as transgenic fish may lead them to avoid purchasing farmed fish at all.

He added that companies may have to start putting “non-GMO” on their labels, which would push the cost of labeling onto businesses that are not producing GMO fish.

“They are harming their own industry,” Condotta said. “In the long run, they might change their minds.”

Even if a nationwide labeling law is approved on the federal level, Dentler says fish farmers probably wouldn’t be in favor of it either. He attributed the hype about labeling GMOs in general to “fear and emotion, not science.”

“If there is a scientific basis to suggest that there is a public-health concern [for consuming genetically engineered food], labeling may be appropriate,” Dentler said.

Conclusive research about whether transgenic fish is safe to eat or safe for the environment seems to be hard to find.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that transgenic salmon is as safe to eat as Atlantic salmon, most of which available for sale in the U.S. are farmed.

Other organizations have raised concerns about the possibility of increased allergens in transgenic fish, as well as decreased nutritional value.

But ecologically speaking, transgenic and genetically engineered fish may have more benefits than risks, especially for the agriculture industry, says a July 2004 report by European Molecular Biology Organization.

Over-harvesting of wild fish is a problem, the report says. Increased fish consumption has put fish populations under stress and threatens their future viability. Having more genetically engineered fish may relieve some of that stress, according to the report.