Do you care if your dinner is genetically engineered?

Do you care if your dinner is genetically engineered?
I-522 will decide whether genetically modified salmon is labeled at your local grocery store. (Joshua Lewis/KOMO News)

A Massachusetts biotechnology company has created a salmon that grows twice as fast as its farm-raised peers by introducing DNA from Chinook Salmon and Ocean Pout fish into Atlantic salmon.  And, the resulting AquAdvantage Salmon, referred to by critics as the “frankenfish,” could soon be on sale at your local grocery store.

The Food and Drug Administration found these genetically engineered fish do not pose any major health or environmental risks, but some activists are asking whether consumers have the right to know if the salmon they’re eating was genetically modified.

That’s the issue behind Initiative 522, which would require all genetically engineered foods be labeled in Washington state. While some argue that consumers have a right to choose whether or not they consume genetically engineered foods, others say this initiative is designed to make the public fear products that have been safely consumed for decades.  

Genetic engineering involves producing a piece of DNA and introducing it into an organism to create a desired trait, resulting in a genetically modified organism (GMO). Traditional crossbreeding has been used to create desired traits for centuries, but genetic engineering has proven to be far more precise.

The FDA’s current food labeling policy only requires that genetically engineered foods be labeled if the engineered food is significantly different from its traditional counterpart or if its production method materially changes the food’s nutritional profile, such as adding an allergen.

I-522 would require labeling any foods produced through genetic engineering, including many kinds of corn and prepackaged foods made with sugar from genetically engineered sugar beets. Foods from restaurants, medical foods, alcohol, meat and dairy would all be exempt. The measure does not ban any genetically engineered foods, it only requires they be labeled.

“I think it’s important that it’s classified,” said Seattle food blogger Ashley Michael of genetically engineered foods. “We should know what we’re eating.”

Supporters of I-522 submitted more than 350,000 signatures to the Secretary of State on Jan. 3. If the signatures are approved the measure will be set to appear on the November ballot.

Pete Knutson, a local fisherman and owner of Loki Fish Co., compared I-522 to the 1993 legislative action that required labeling of farmed salmon.

“It gives consumers a little bit more knowledge,” Knutson said.  “I don’t see how you can have an opposition to more information.”

Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets, said this is an economic issue. She said she fears the 62 countries which require GMO labels will stop trading with Washington producers if the measure does not pass.

“This is much bigger than a food issue, it reaches into our economy,” Bialic said. “GMO crops are an export barrier. Let’s make it easy and make sure we have continued access to those export markets by meeting the standards of what goes into their markets.”

But, some opponents say the initiative is designed to create unnecessary fear of GMOs among consumers.

“We think labeling is really intended to frighten people away from a technology,” said Heather Hansen of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests. “It’s implying that there is something wrong with the food and we think that’s misleading to the consumer.”

Hansen, and other leaders in Washington’s farming industry, argue that labeling laws should be set at the federal level to avoid complications between states.

“Food doesn’t recognize state lines,” Hansen said. “Producers would have to make a unique label for one state.”

Tom Davis of the Washington Farm Bureau echoed her concern.

“Some companies will just stop selling here,” Davis said.

The American Medical Association reports that GE foods, which have been consumed for nearly 20 years, have not been shown to be harmful to human health. Additionally, some GMO supporters believe that genetically engineered foods allow farmers around the world to address food shortages by growing more crops on less land.

Toby Bradshaw, a professor at the University of Washington who works on genetic engineering, said he has no concerns about consuming GMOs.

“It’s the qualities of the product, not the process by which it’s made, that are important,” Bradshaw said.

Despite agreeing the nutritional value of genetically engineered foods is not drastically different from heritage foods, Brian Higginson, a clinical nutrition specialist at Swedish Medical Center, said he avoids eating GMOs whenever possible because he is concerned about what affect the growing practices of these foods could have on our overall food supply.

For example, Higginson said he is concerned that the creation of GE foods that can better tolerate pesticide use will lead to increased pesticide use and more chemicals getting to the foods we eat.  

While the issue is being decided, consumers can avoid GMOs by buying foods labeled organic, which are not allowed to contain any genetically engineered ingredients.
This undated 2010 handout photo provided by AquaBounty Technologies shows two same-age salmon, a genetically modified salmon, rear, and a non-genetically modified salmon, foreground. (AP Photo/AquaBounty Technologies)