Frankenfish Bills Debated
in California Legislature

Altered fish in a battle for survival
Regulation measures face tough obstacles

Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer Wednesday, August 28, 2002

A pair of bills that aim to make California the first state in the nation to
regulate transgenic fish in food markets and the environment face deadly
battles in the Legislature this week.

On Monday, the Senate passed a consumers' right-to-know bill that would
require the labeling of unpackaged bioengineered fish and seafood sold in
California retail stores. The bill must clear the Assembly by Saturday, the
session's end, to survive.

Prompted by a new scientific report warning that biotech fish could escape
and taint wild populations, Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, D-Duncan
Hills, author of the labeling bill, also helped Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo
Alto, resurrect his own all-but-dead bill designed to keep live gene-altered
fish out of the state.

Both bills are opposed by the powerful biotechnology, grocery and
agriculture industries and still face immense hurdles. The labeling bill,
for example, was dealt a last-minute blow in the Assembly on Tuesday when
referred to both a hostile Agriculture Committee as well as a more receptive
panel on environmental safety and toxic materials.

"The chairman of the Agriculture Committee wanted it, and we know why. We
thought we had this all finessed," said Strom-Martin. "I'm very sad, but I'm
not giving up."

The labeling bill passed the Senate 22-14 on Monday but must be approved by
both committees before it can be subject to a vote by the full Assembly.

The other bill, which in its previous form also passed the Senate but was
amended Monday, may go directly to the floor of the Assembly. Strom-Martin
is waiting to see if the California Fish and Game Commission passes a
two-year moratorium on transgenic species in a meeting Thursday. If the
commission doesn't act, she intends to take Sher's amended bill to the
Assembly floor for a vote.

If either bill passes, California would be the first state to require
labeling of transgenic fish for consumers or to prohibit outright the sale
of bioengineered fish in the state. An exception would be allowed for
research purposes.

On Monday, Sher pulled off a classic "gut and amend" move that revived his
own bill after preliminary committee hearings effectively had blocked the
original measure.

The bill would create a two-year ban on the import, possession or production
of live transgenic fish. The state Department of Fish and Game would report
by March 2004 whether California should allow commercialization of such fish
after the moratorium.

Last week, the National Research Council released the first comprehensive
assessment of environmental and health risks of using cloning and gene-
splicing to create new animals. The report concluded that current
regulations might not be adequate to prevent escapes and the tainting of
genetic lines in the wild.

The bills are supported by the Ocean Conservancy, the Natural Resources
Defense Council, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations
and Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club.

Opponents include the Biotechnology Industry Organization, California
Chamber of Commerce, California Farm Bureau, Grocery Manufacturers of
America, National Food Processors Association, California Retailers
Association and other trade groups.

Joe McGonigle, vice president of Aqua Bounty -- a biotech company based in
Waltham, Mass., that was the first to request approval of a transgenic fish,
a Northern Atlantic salmon, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration --
said he opposed any new regulation of genetically altered fish.

"We intend entirely to label our fish, but we intend to do it with our own
language," McGonigle said.

"The problem with mandatory labeling is that the language being used is
basically written by a bureaucracy, and taken by the consumer as a health
warning," he said. "It immediately raises red flags in people."

George Gough, a Sacramento lobbyist for Monsanto, a leader in developing
FDA-approved bioengineered crops, said the industry relied on federal
guidelines and didn't believe states should have a role in labeling.

"Just because it's biotech doesn't mean it has to have a label," Gough said.

The FDA's policy is that transgenic crops are "substantially equivalent" to
traditional crops and don't need labeling if they don't modify the
nutritional value, composition or capacity to cause allergic reactions.

Kate Wing, a Natural Resources Defense Council analyst, said the industry
lobbying had been unrelenting.

"The opponents have been clear the whole time that they'd rather see
business move ahead at the expense of environmental protection," Wing said.
"The National Research Council makes it clear that the FDA isn't doing
enough to protect the environment from bioengineered animals. Clearly,
California needs to step up its protection of native species."

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