Murkowski, Sullivan renew push to label genetically engineered salmon
Genetically engineered salmon should be labeled exactly as such when sold to Americans at supermarkets across the nation, according to Alaska’s U.S. senators who hope to make the phrase law.
The measure’s return to the Senate comes as Alaska’s salmon industry presents a unified front against the potential threat posed by genetically modified fish.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced Wednesday that she has again filed the Genetically Engineered Salmon Labeling Act, co-sponsored by fellow Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan along with Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Jeff Merkley of Washington and Oregon.
The four senators backed a 2017-version of the bill, which requires that “the acceptable market name of any salmon that is genetically engineered shall include the words ‘Genetically Engineered’ or ‘GE’ prior to the existing acceptable market name.”
According to a Reuters story in December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed guidelines recommend calling modified foods “bioengineered,” rather than terms such as “genetically modified” or referring to their source as a “GMO” or genetically modified organism. Those could take effect as soon as next year.
Karina Borger, a spokeswoman for Murkowski, said the senator particularly objected to a USDA provision allowing some details about genetically engineered salmon to be listed in resources not directly included on food labels.
“If you have to scan a QR code or you have to call a phone number to know what’s in it, I don’t know about you but I’m not going to do that to find out,” Borger said.
It wasn’t initially clear Thursday whether USDA officials had been in contact with the bill’s backers regarding the development of the guidelines, or whether their concerns might be addressed by the department.
Jeremy Woodrow, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said genetically engineered salmon make up a minuscule portion of the world salmon market, measures like Murkowski’s are crucial to the branding of wild salmon.
“Our research as a marketing firm shows that consumers are really more in tune than ever with what’s on a label and wants to know what’s in a product,” Woodrow said. “Alaska seafood is often misidentified or mislabeled, and this effort is another way to make sure that it is differentiated in the marketplace.”
At present, Woodrow said, the global salmon market made up of about 85 percent farmed salmon versus 15 percent wild salmon. The rise of farmed Atlantic salmon, in particular, has helped drive interest in salmon of all types.
“The marketplace and the market price are already controlled by farmed salmon,” he said. “What we do at [ASMI] is show consumers and the marketplace why Alaska salmon are different and command a premium market price.”
Frances Leach, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said her organization’s opposition to genetically enhanced salmon goes back to the introduction of the concept.
“We have a longstanding position to oppose GMO consumption or sale in the U.S. since before that was even a thing,” Leach said. “But since it is, we greatly support the labeling of them; people have a right to know what they’re eating.”
She warned that any expansions in the market share of genetically engineered fish may take a bite out of Alaska fishermen’s wallets.
“If a consumer is looking at it just by price, by deciphering the USDA label which is just a phone number or a series of numbers, they may just go for the cheaper option,” she said. “Thankfully people do prefer wild Alaskan salmon, so if they know that they’re not going to be purchasing that.”
Much of the controversy over genetically engineered salmon has focused on Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, whose salmon became the first genetically modified animal approved for consumption by the federal Food and Drug Administration in 2015.
AquaBounty’s project has run into fiscal troubles, however. Industry news website SeafoodSource.com reported that the company made just under $67,000 from modified salmon during the first half of 2018 — amid losses of $5.2 million during the same time period.
Genetically engineered salmon — sometimes dubbed "Frankenfish" — have been a hot-button issue in Alaska for years, with a 2014 debate seeing then-Sen. Mark Begich and his challenger, Sullivan, find common cause against them.
The state Legislature weighed in on the controversy last year with by sending a resolution opposing the FDA’s approval of the fish to then-Gov. Bill Walker, who ultimately signed it according to legislative records.
Although the percentage of wild salmon shrinks whenever new numbers on global salmon sales are released, Woodrow said, the domestic market offers a place for Alaska’s fish to shine.
“Fortunately salmon’s in a really good place, especially in the U.S.; it’s the No. 1 consumed fin dish, it surpassed tuna a few years ago,” Woodrow said. “It’s important that we educate consumers that it’s an option, and that there’s a superior product available.”
One lifeline for the Alaska salmon industry to find that niche lies in the nation’s current culinary trends.
“Americans are really on a healthy-food kick,” Leach said. “They’re aware of what fake food is doing to their bodies and they crave the real thing.”
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