By Rob Hotakainen
WASHINGTON — Fearing for the wild salmon industry in the Northwest, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state wants to stop the Food and Drug Administration from making a quick decision on whether to approve genetically modified Atlantic salmon for human consumption.
Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska says that Congress can’t allow “these alien fish to infect our stocks.”
Murray and Young are part of a growing bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill that’s out to stop a Massachusetts biotechnology company from winning federal approval to sell its fast-growing fish, which critics are calling “Frankenfish.”
“I’m very concerned this is being rushed through with massive potential for negative ramifications,” Murray said.
Two pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress: The first would ban the fish outright, while the second would require it to be labeled as transgenic if the FDA approves it.
So far, the legislation has the backing of 64 environmental and other organizations, including fishing associations, retailers and the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group.
Andrew Kimbrell, the center’s executive director, said Congress “has to step in to correct the failures of the Obama administration,” which he criticized for allowing the FDA to proceed.
“FDA’s decision to go ahead with this approval process is misguided and dangerous for consumers, the environment and our economy,” he said.
But the fish are not without their fans.
In November, Time magazine named the genetically engineered salmon as one of the top 50 inventions of 2010, noting that Americans love to eat salmon but wild populations are dwindling.
That prompted a letter to the editor from Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who chided the magazine for its selection.
“Want more salmon?” he asked. “Here’s a better idea: Protect its natural habitat, maintain water quality and manage wild stocks for sustainability. That’s what Alaska has done for over 50 years.”
The company that’s seeking FDA approval, AquaBounty Technologies Inc., says the fish are perfectly safe and wouldn’t require labels because they’d be indistinguishable from other salmon.
Company officials said the eggs from the genetically modified fish included a growth-hormone gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon: They have the advantage of growing to market size in half the time of conventional salmon.
“In all other respects, AquAdvantage salmon are identical to other Atlantic salmon,” the company says in a statement on its website.
The FDA hasn’t said when it will make a decision, but it’s already held a public hearing. FDA officials said it was the first time the agency was considering an application for a genetically engineered animal intended for food use.
Genetically modified plants such as corn and soybeans already are grown and consumed in the U.S.
The chief sponsors of the bills are Young and Begich, who represent a state where the issue has become particularly potent. Last month, House of Representatives Democrats from the Alaska State Legislature introduced a resolution that urged the FDA to deny any application to sell genetically modified fish.
When Begich introduced his legislation in January, he said the fish were called Frankenfish for good reason, calling them “a monster that threatens our wild stocks and their habitat, our food safety and economic harm to Alaska wild salmon fishermen.”
Murray, who’s co-sponsoring both bills, called the salmon industry “extremely important to the Northwest, both from an economic standpoint and a cultural standpoint.”
“And it’s a health issue,” she said. “I do not want to see FDA rush through a rule that can undermine our economy and this important resource for Washington state — and actually for the world — without very thoughtful, smart decisions,” she said.
Murray and Begich are three of 11 senators who support the legislation, according to the Organic Consumers Association. There are 31 supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The 11 senators have written a letter to the FDA complaining that the agency’s review of the genetically modified fish has involved far too little scrutiny.
If the FDA approves the fish and Congress doesn’t ban them, Murray said, lawmakers should insist on labeling.
“You have a right to know what you’re buying, absolutely,” she said.