Chefs Join Campaign Against
Genetically Engineered Fish

September 18, 2002
New York Times

Chefs Join Campaign Against Altered Fish

A pre-emptive strike against the newest genetically engineered food, 200
chefs, grocers and seafood distributors across 40 states plan to announce
today that they have pledged not to purchase fish that have been altered
through biotechnology.

The campaign says it is concerned that if genetically engineered salmon are
approved by the Food and Drug Administration, they could escape from the
pens in which they are raised and interbreed with wild salmon, endangering
some species.

The F.D.A. is considering an application to market transgenic salmon. If the
application is approved, salmon would become the first genetically modified
animal allowed onto American dinner plates, where it would sit alongside
genetically engineered corn and potatoes, which have been available for
several years.

The biotech company producing the salmon says they will be better for the
environment than current farmed salmon.

The boycott is being led by the Center for Food Safety, Clean Water Action
and Friends of the Earth, all groups that have been critical of genetically
modified, or transgenic, foods. The list of chefs allied with them include
high-profile names like Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville,
Calif.; Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington; and in New York, Mario
Batali at Babbo, Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges, David Pasternack
at Esca and Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin.

The chief concern is environmental < whether genetically altered fish are
dangerous to native species. The groups cite a study requested by the F.D.A.
and issued last month by the National Research Council, a part of the
National Academy of Sciences, which pointed out that genetically engineered
salmon, bred in pens in the sea, could escape, crossbreed with their wild
cousins and edge them out for food and mates, thus endangering the already
dwindling Atlantic salmon fishery. Opponents say a large body of scientific
evidence indicates that genetic and ecological interactions between wild and
aquaculture salmon can adversely affect wild populations.

One-third of all fish consumed in the United States is farmed.

Todd Gray, the chef and an owner of Equinox in Washington, described
transgenic fish as "Frankenfood." "We'd like to keep our food unengineered,
un-laboratorized," he said.

Other environmental groups have signed on to support the boycott, along with
42,000 individuals. Even some salmon farmers say they are worried about
transgenic fish.

This is the latest skirmish in a war that has been going on for more than a
decade between those who believe that genetically modified food is a boon to
the world's needs and those who think that it is a bane.

Elliot Entis, the president of Aqua Bounty Farms of Waltham, Mass., the
company seeking government approval for transgenic salmon, said the
environmental groups are twisting the facts for their own selfish reasons.

"I truly believe these groups operate on a sectarian basis of how they can
forward a private agenda at the expense of a public good," Mr. Entis said.
"Their private agenda is to raise money for their organization and misuse
information to incite fears for that purpose."

The new breed of salmon can grow twice as fast as its conventional farmed
counterpart because it has genes inserted from Chinook salmon and ocean pout
that allow the fish to produce growth hormones year-round, instead of only
in warm weather months as normal salmon do.

Salmon are the first biotech animal to go through the F.D.A. review process,
but the agency has permitted a few transgenic animals to be rendered and
used in animal feed. The Center for Food Safety is concerned that the agency
is not addressing the novelty of these new animals. Other critics say the
F.D.A. is the wrong agency to be making these decisions, since it has little
expertise in the area.

A spokesman for the F.D.A. would say only that transgenic salmon from Aqua
Bounty is under review and had no comment on how long the approval process
might take.

Opponents are citing the report released by the National Research Council
last month. It found that while the risk to human health from transgenic
animals appears to be low to moderate (some new proteins produced through
adding genes from other species might prompt allergic reactions in a few
people) there is the specter of transgenic fish getting out and
crossbreeding, with the possibility of the modified fish replacing their
wild relatives.

But the report also said there appeared to be many benefits if the
technology is applied and regulated carefully.

Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety in
Washington, said, "The report recognizes there are many risks and virtually
no controls protecting the environment or the public from the potential
impact of genetically engineered animals."

Those who have followed the controversy over genetically modified crops
recognize that all of these arguments have been made before.

Some countries already prohibit growing or importing transgenic foods.
Recently Zambia, which is facing famine, rejected an offer of genetically
modified food; it later agreed to accept the food in refugee camps once it
had been milled.

The F.D.A. is treating transgenic animals as new drug applications, which
means all of the agency's deliberations are conducted in secret.

Dr. Anne Kapuscinski, professor of fisheries and conservation biology at the
University of Minnesota and an international expert on the safety of
genetically modified organisms, said: "Secrecy encourages black and white
positions. It's human nature when people are left in a vacuum. Citizens
won't know until after the F.D.A. has made a decision about the fish on what
kind of evidence it was based, and even then you don't know how much
information will be released," she said. "If transgenic salmon are approved
it will be a precedent."

In the January-February 2001 issue of its magazine FDA Consumer, the F.D.A.
acknowledged that the subject of genetically modified food is controversial.
It said, however, that "transgenic technology promises more and better crops
and food animals to feed a continuously growing world population."

Even before the National Research Council report, the Fish and Wildlife
Service of the Interior Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service
of the Commerce Department, warned about the potential problems of
transgenic fish. In a joint letter to the F.D.A. a year ago, the agencies
said that "the introduction of genetically modified salmon by the salmon
farming industry has the potential to adversely affect endangered wild
salmon and thus is of concern to the Services."

The agencies base their concern on the adverse impact farmed conventional
salmon, thousands of which have escaped from their pens over the years, have
already had on the wild population.

A 1999 study by William M. Muir and Richard D. Howard at Purdue University
concludes that "a transgene introduced into a natural population by a small
number of transgenic fish will spread as a result of enhanced mating
advantage, but the reduced viability of offspring will cause eventual local
extinction of both populations."

But some argue that transgenic fish may actually help save wild populations,
among them Dr. Rex Dunham, professor of fisheries and allied acquacultures
at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.

"It's been demonstrated that there is good potential to improve traits such
as growth rate and disease resistance that would increase aquaculture
production and make it more efficient," he said. "From an environmental
standpoint, since the world fish populations are under duress from
overfishing, overexploitation as well as pollution and habitat destruction,
we are just not going to be able to get fish protein from wild populations.
If we can get more protein efficiency from fish farming, hopefully, that
takes some pressure of the natural populations."

Mr. Entis, the Aqua Bounty president, said his company was also
experimenting with ways to make fish farming more productive by
nontransgenic means, for example, by finding alternatives to antibiotics to
control disease. "We do share some of the same concerns as
environmentalists," he said.

The company is conducting tests to answer questions raised by its critics
and by the government. Mr. Entis said in a telephone interview last week
that only sterile transgenic fish would be put in pens, so even if they
escaped they could not crossbreed with salmon in the wild. He said that he
did not think they would be very good at competing in the wild and that he
was "quite sure" there would not be any allergenicity problems.

Dr. Kapuscinski said that because Aqua Bounty has not released its data,
"the trouble is right now we just have to take Elliot's word for it." She
takes issue with Mr. Entis's contention that the sterilization process is,
as he says, 99.9 percent effective.

Aqua Bounty is also growing transgenic arctic char and trout. Around the
world there are at least 20 other fish species that have been genetically
engineered. China is raising transgenic carp, and Cuba is raising transgenic
tilapia. It is not clear whether any of this fish is being sold.

The International Salmon Farmers Association has also voiced concerns about
the safety of transgenic fish. And with the continual decline in prices of
farmed salmon, its members may not be eager to produce more fish in less

Transgenic salmon, for which farmers will have to pay more, might reduce
their already slim profits even further. In addition, many environmental
groups criticize farming practices that they say despoil the waters. And
because thousands of the farmed fish have already escaped into the wild,
fish farmers may hesitate to give the public any additional reasons for not
buying their product.

"But privately," Mr. Entis said, "the large fish companies say transgenic
fish are inevitable."

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