California Assembly Committee Passes Bill to Require Labels on Frankenfish

The California Assembly Health Committee in Sacramento on May 3 approved a bill requiring that all GE salmon sold in California contain clear and prominent labeling.

Assemblymember Jared Huffman introduced the bill, AB 88, due to widespread dissatisfaction by consumer, fishing and environmental groups and Indian Tribes with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) current review of the first-ever proposed commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) Aqua-Bounty salmon.

“Knowing whether our salmon is genetically engineered is important for a host of reasons, including risks to our native salmon species, and allowing consumers to make dietary choices consistent with concerns they may have for the environment, food safety, and religiously or ethically based dietary restrictions,” said Assemblymember Huffman, in explaining the reason for introducing the bill.

AB 88 “would provide that food is misbranded if the food is a genetically engineered fish or fish product, as defined, and its labeling does not conspicuously identify the fish or fish product as genetically engineered,” according to the bill language.

Coauthors of the bill include Assembly Members Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa), Tom Ammiano (D-SF), Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata), and Bill Monning (D-Carmel). AB 88 will make a stop in the Appropriations Committee before being taken up by the full Assembly.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS), a co-sponsor of the bill, and other groups applauded the Health Committee for protecting the public’s right to know how their food is produced.

“The FDA has indicated that it will not require these GE fish to be labeled once they are approved,” said Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director of the Center for Food Safety. “As such, it is incumbent on the California State legislature, starting with the Health Committee, to let the people of California make informed choices about the food they eat by requiring the labeling of GE fish sold in California.”

Public opinion clearly and consistently calls for food labeling, according to Spector. Recent polls indicate that 95% of the public want labeling of genetically-modified foods, and that nearly 50% of the public would not eat seafood that has been genetically engineered. Consumers sent nearly 400,000 public comments to FDA demanding the agency reject this application and require mandatory labeling of this transgenic salmon should it decide to approve it.

The Center for Food Safety and other organizations throughout the country recently called on the FDA to recognize the immense public outcry for mandatory labeling of untested, unapproved transgenic salmon. If approved, the transgenic salmon – called “Frankensalmon” or “Frankenfish” by many opponents of GE food, would be the first genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption.

“Until FDA completes an adequate environmental and human health review of genetically engineered salmon, it is up to individual states to protect consumers and their families,” said Spector. “California has always been a leader in environmental and food safety laws, and AB 88 continues this tradition by protecting the public from a potentially harmful food technology. More importantly, it gives consumers the right to know what they are eating and gives them a choice in the marketplace.”

Supporters of the legislation include the California State Grange, Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, California Coastkeeper Alliance, Clean Water Action California, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, Commercial Fishermen’s Organization of Morro Bay, Crab Boat Owners Association, Food & Water Watch, Golden Gate Fishermen’s Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Sierra Club California, Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Association and South Yuba River Citizens League.

“Although most of Food & Water Watch’s efforts have been focused on national legislation to ban GE salmon such as HR 521 and S 230, rather than to label it, we are campaigning hard for AB 88 because California often sets the precedent for the nation in these sorts of matters,” stated Marie Logan of Food and Water Watch. “Passing AB 88 will send a strong message to legislators nationwide that consumers in California are concerned about genetic engineering of animals. The owner of the company producing GE fish has even admitted publicly that labeling the fish would be tantamount to banning it — so our work is cut out for us.”

“It is clear that California consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it’s made, and if it has been genetically engineered,” explained James Ferro, Policy Analyst for Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program. “This bill empowers California consumers to vote with their wallets when it comes to genetically engineered seafood.”

Ferro noted that California is not the only state concerned with the federal government’s potential approval of engineered fish; thirteen other states have introduced similar legislation this year to require labeling of genetically engineered fish or other engineered food.

Recreational and commercial fishermen, consumer advocates, environmental activists and leaders of Indian Tribes are strongly opposed to the Obama administration plans to approve genetically engineered salmon for human consumption. Not only do they pose a great risk to human health, but their inevitable escape into the wild could prove catastrophic for imperiled Pacific and Atlantic coast salmon populations.

“If they escape into the ocean, they’ll compete with wild salmon for food, contaminate the gene pool and possibly cause extinctions,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “This comes at a time when Pacific salmon runs have recorded historically low numbers, and when many, including my tribe, fear they may soon be lost forever. AquaBounty is like coyote building with sticks, and the GE salmon are as shoddily constructed as coyote’s children.

“Thus, we find it ironic that the government is fast-tracking the GE salmon yet skeptical about our own unorthodox but far safer plan to return Chinook salmon to our river, the McCloud,” in reference to the Tribe’s ambitious plan to restore winter run chinook salmon to the McCloud above Shasta Dam.

The recent collapse of Central Valley chinook salmon populations, due to a combination of increased water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, declining water quality, a poor ocean conditions, spurred the loss of 23,000 jobs in the recreational and commercial salmon fishing industry. While the fall run chinook stocks appear to be on the upswing this year, the ESA-listed winter run and spring run chinook populations of the Sacramento River continue to decline.

“AB 88 is extremely important because consumers in the market place must have the means to be able to distinguish between our natural wild salmon and genetically engineered farmed salmon,” summed up Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “This bill would provide consumers the means to tell the difference – rather than having them take home Frankenfish and getting a rude surprise.”

Opponents of the legislation include BIO, BIOCOM, California Aquaculture Association, California Chamber of Commerce, California Farm Bureau Federation, California Grain and Feed Association, California League of Food Processors, California Seed Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association and Western Plant Health Association

Click on the Food & Water website to contact your legislator to support AB 88.

For more information on GE fish, visit CFS’s campaign website.