California to GMO Salmon: Welcome!

Golden State legislators vote down a measure to require labeling of the genetically modified fish.

genetically modified salmon
So much for ‘Just Label It.’ California’s legislators decided consumers don’t need to know about genetically modified salmon. (Photo: Richard Newstead/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

For Californians who were rallying behind the proposed Consumer Right to Know Act (AB-88), a measure requiring all genetically engineered fish sold in California to be labeled as such—well, that fish is dead in the water.

The measure failed by a vote of 9-7 during today’s Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing. The bill was first introduced in January 2011 by California Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who says he knew it would be an uphill fight.

“This shows that if we’re going to get some reforms in place, giving consumers basic information on the food they eat, it will be tough to do that through the legislature,” he says. “We’ll have to go straight to the voters. If we had put this bill before the people of California, it would have passed overwhelmingly,” Huffman tells TakePart.

A similar bill, requiring labeling of genetically engineered fish passed in Alaska in 2005.

Currently, there are no genetically modified fish on the market approved for human consumption. The closest to market is a genetically engineered salmon developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technology. The fish is currently waiting for final FDA approval.

AquaBounty declined to comment on today’s AB-88 vote.

For environmental groups like Ocean Conservancy or Consumers Union, today’s action was disappointing.

“Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that genetically engineered fish should not be allowed into the food supply unless it is proved safe for humans and the environment. At the very least, it should be labeled,” writes Elisa Odabashian, West Coast office director for Consumers Union in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture director, George Leonard, says the vote count was largely predictable.

“What’s interesting, though, is Jerry Hill, Chair of the Select Committee on Biotechnology (a separate committee than the appropriations committee, though he’s on both) voted in favor of the measure,” says Leonard.

Leonard also predicts the issue isn’t going away any time soon, especially with recent momentum garnered by the Just Label It campaign, which is pressing for labeling of all products containing genetically modified ingredients.

“In 24-hours, Ocean Conservancy got over 4,000 Californians to write into the Appropriations Committee on this issue. It was demonstrable. And Washington state, at the beginning of this week, just introduced its own legislation to label genetically engineered foods, not just fish,” he says.

“Just because some of the legislators on the Appropriations Committee in California wouldn’t give Californians what they wanted, doesn’t mean their concerns or desires are going to go away. As long as genetically engineered salmon is out there, the public is going to want to have it labeled,” Leonard continues.

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