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By Jessica Corbett
The Trump administration has lifted a ban on importing genetically engineered or GE salmon, which critics have long called "Frankenfish," in a move that consumer advocates charge "runs counter to sound science and market demand."
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the decision on Friday, more than three years after approving GE salmon as the first biotech animal authorized for commercial sale and consumption in the U.S.
In 2015, the FDA approved genetically engineered salmon, the first ever GE animal to be approved for human consumption anywhere in the world. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians called for sufficient consultation with Tribes to assess the environmental impact of GE salmon production, a legal requirement the FDA did not honor.
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By Ana Santos Rutschman
The world of food and drug regulation was rocked earlier this month by the news of a change in leadership at the Food and Drug Administration. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb resigned and will step down in early April. His temporary replacement is Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute.
By George Kimbrell
One year down, three to go. Trump and his enablers are hell bent on destroying or selling to the highest bidder the federal agencies they are charged with running in the public interest. In the past year, they have been unrelenting in their attacks on food safety, environmental protections, climate change, government transparency and so many other values we hold dear. We are in the midst of the most significant environmental and public health challenges imaginable. We're no longer dreading the harm the Trump administration could do to our health and environment—we're living it.
By Jessica A. Knoblauch
A U.S. District Court judge took the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to task on Jan. 10 for withholding government documents related to the agency's approval of genetically engineered (GE) salmon. The judge's decision is a big win for public transparency, but it's also a small step toward finally doing a proper evaluation of the risks posed by GE animals—which could one day end up on our dinner plates.
In 2015, the FDA approved GE salmon made from the DNA of three different animals: Atlantic salmon, deep water ocean eelpout, and Pacific Chinook salmon. The GE version is intended to grow faster than conventional farmed salmon, reportedly getting to commercial size in half the time.
Even though this is the first time any government in the world has approved a GE animal for commercial sale and consumption, so far the FDA has taken a lackadaisical approach to evaluating the salmon's potential for harm to wild salmon and the environment. If the GE salmon were to escape, it could threaten wild salmon populations by outcompeting them for scarce resources and habitat, by mating with endangered salmon species, and by introducing new diseases.
The world's preeminent experts on GE fish and risk assessment, as well as biologists at U.S. wildlife agencies charged with protecting fish and wildlife, heavily criticized the FDA for failing to evaluate these impacts. But the FDA ignored their concerns, so in March 2016, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the agency.
As part of the lawsuit, the FDA is required to compile a record of documents that illuminate the path the agency followed to reach its decision to approve the GE salmon—much like a student is required to show their work for a math problem in middle school. A complete record is essential in all cases. But it is especially important here because the FDA has so far refused to release most of the documents related to its decision, despite repeated requests for that information from Earthjustice's diverse set of clients under the Freedom of Information Act.
The public has a right to know how the agency came to this seemingly ill-informed decision, especially because the FDA's approach will likely serve as a precedent for the assessment of future GE food animals. Withholding that information is illegal because government agencies like the FDA are funded by taxpayer dollars, which means that any records they create, with only limited exceptions, can and should be available to the public and to citizens seeking to hold the government accountable in court.
Last month, a U.S. District Court judge agreed, concluding that: "the government is wrong to assert that these types of materials … should be excluded" from the record. The FDA is now required to fully complete the record with all relevant documents no later than July 2017. In addition to working to ensure the timely completion of that process, we will thoroughly review the full basis for the agency's decisions.
"There's no way to know what exactly is in these documents until we see them," says Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy. "But they will undoubtedly provide a far more complete picture of how we got here, including information that raises legitimate questions about the agency's decision."
Jessica Knoblauch is a former award-winning journalist who now serves at the helm of Earthjustice's editorial team, which tells stories through the organization's blog, quarterly magazine and website.
By Samantha Henry
Netflix's recent, original feature film Okja has triggered a bit of disruption amongst both those in the film industry and enthusiasts in the food movement.
The movie targets several issues concerning the current state of our food system, and could be a great watch for those curious about where our food system could soon be headed.
The Takagoyama Nature Zoo in the city of Futtsu, Japan euthanized 57 snow monkeys who were found to have hybrid genetic make-ups. The zoo mistakenly believed all 164 of its resident primates were pure Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), which are endemic to Japan. When the zoo discovered through DNA testing that 57 of them were actually of a hybrid breed, rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), which is common throughout Southeast Asia, they culled the hybrid monkeys.
Macaques photographed in Japan.mari_sixx / Instagram
In 2013, Japan's environmental laws were revised to make holding or transporting invasive species including hybrids illegal, in an attempt to protect the indigenous environment and native species. Culling of rhesus macaque is allowed under this law, which designates them as an "invasive alien species."
An Office for Alien Species Management official said the culling was unavoidable because the hybrid species might escape and reproduce in the wild, BBC reported.
The monkeys were culled through lethal injection over the course of about a month, ending in early February. The zoo operator then held a memorial service for the hybrid monkeys at a local Buddhist temple.
Questions remain as to whether other steps could have been taken such as sterilization, IFL Science pointed out. Transplanting the common hybrids into another region may have also been a possibility; they are native to Burma, India, Thailand, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and China.
"There are many zoos in the country, which rear animals that became classified as invasive species after the law was created," an Environment Ministry official said, according to Phys.org. Zoos can apply for exceptions to keep the hybrid species.
"Preventing exposures to foreign animals is very important," said Tomoko Shimura of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan. The Chiba prefecture where the zoo is located has been culling the hybrids since 2005.
Japanese macaques are brown with white faces and are the only indigenous primate in Japan and most northern living nonhuman primate on Earth. They are also known as snow monkeys and have developed a hot tub culture by warming themselves in hot springs. The area around the zoo is designated as their wild habitat.
In the U.S., concerns over protecting native species' genes have arisen in relation to genetically engineered (GE) salmon produced by AquaBounty, Inc. and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015.
Fears relating to GE salmon include the possibility they will mate with native species, introduce new diseases and/or compete for resources and habitat.
By Reynard Loki
Editor's note: The terms GE (genetic engineering) and GMO (genetically modified organism) are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are different. GMOs, which are produced when plant breeders select genetic traits that may also occur naturally, have been around for centuries. Common examples are seedless watermelons and modern broccoli. The subject of much recent debate are GE foods, which have only been around in recent decades and are produced by transferring genes between organisms. The resulting GE organisms—either plant- or in the case of GE salmon, animal-based—would not otherwise occur in nature. This article is about GE foods.
Bigger isn't always better. Too much of a good thing can be bad. Many anti-environmentalists throw these simple truths to the wind, along with caution.
You can see it in the deceitful realm of climate change denial. It's difficult to keep up with the constantly shifting—and debunked—denier arguments, but one common thread promoted by the likes of the Heartland Institute in the U.S. and its Canadian affiliate, the misnamed International Climate Science Coalition, illustrates the point. They claim carbon dioxide is good for plants, and plants are good for people, so we should aim to pump even more CO2 into the atmosphere than we already are.
On the heels of Canada's approval of GMO salmon, Friends of the Earth U.S. and a coalition of more than 30 consumer, health, food safety and fishing groups released updated numbers Wednesday showing that nearly 80 major food retailers have committed to not sell genetically engineered salmon, despite FDA's approval last November.
“Despite irresponsible approvals, the growing number of commitments from retailers demonstrates there is no market for GMO salmon," Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said. “Retailers and restaurants are wisely listening to their customers and rejecting GMO salmon."
Albertsons Companies, owner of Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, ACME, Shaw's and others, stated its commitment to not sell GMO salmon.
“Albertsons Companies and its family of stores, have no plans to carry GE salmon," Jonathan Mayes, Albertsons Companies senior vice president, said in a statement. "The seafood products we offer will continue to be selected consistent with our Responsible Seafood Policy and our partnership with FishWise."
Albertsons Companies, which acquired Safeway in January 2015, continued Safeway's policy on sustainable seafood and GMO salmon for all of its banner stores.
With Albertsons Companies banner stores, a total of more than 79 grocery retailers with more than 11,000 stores have now made commitments to not sell the GMO salmon, including Albertsons, Safeway, Costco, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, along with restaurant chains including Red Lobster and Legal Sea Foods.
Walmart, the world's largest retailer, and Publix are among the last remaining large retail grocers in the U.S. that have not said publicly whether or not they will sell GMO salmon.
A growing body of science suggests that GMO salmon may pose serious environmental and public health risks, including potentially irreversible damage to wild salmon populations.
In the wake of controversy over the U.S. approval, the U.S. has put in place an import ban on GMO salmon until labeling standards are established. The day after Canada's announcement, Provincial Fisheries Minister of Nova Scotia announced the province will ban the farming of GMO fish.
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A broad coalition of organizations sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today for approving the first-ever genetically engineered (GE) food animal, an Atlantic salmon engineered to grow quickly. The man-made salmon was created by AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. with DNA from three fish: Atlantic salmon, Pacific king salmon and Arctic ocean eelpout. This marks the first time any government in the world has approved a GE animal for commercial sale and consumption.
“FDA's decision is as unlawful as it is irresponsible," George Kimbrell, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said. “This case is about protecting our fisheries and ocean ecosystems from the foreseeable harms of the first-ever GE fish, harms FDA refused to even consider, let alone prevent. But it's also about the future of our food: FDA should not, and cannot, responsibly regulate this GE animal, nor any future GE animals, by treating them as drugs under a 1938 law."
In approving the GE salmon, FDA determined it would not require labeling of the GE fish to let consumers know what they are buying, which led Congress to call for labeling in the 2016 omnibus spending bill. FDA's approval also ignored comments from nearly 2 million people opposed to the approval because the agency failed to analyze and prevent the risks to wild salmon and the environment, as well as fishing communities, including the risk that GE salmon could escape and threaten endangered wild salmon stocks.
“It's clear that the market has rejected GE salmon despite FDA's reckless approval," Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said. “Major retailers including Costco, Safeway and Kroger won't sell it and polls show the vast majority of people don't want to eat it. Yet under this approval it won't be labeled, violating our fundamental right to know what we are feeding our families."
AquaBounty's GE salmon will undertake a 5,000-mile journey to reach U.S. supermarkets. The company plans to produce the GE salmon eggs on Prince Edward Island, Canada. The GE salmon will then be grown to market-size in a facility in Panama, processed into fillets and shipped to the U.S. for sale. That complicated scheme is only for the initial approval, however. AquaBounty has publicly announced plans to ultimately grow its GE fish in the U.S. rather than Panama and sell it around the world. Despite this, FDA's approval only considered the current plans for the far-flung facilities in Canada and Panama, leaving the risk of escape and contamination of U.S. salmon runs unstudied.
The lawsuit challenges FDA's claim that it has authority to approve and regulate GE animals as “animal drugs" under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Those provisions were meant to ensure the safety of veterinary drugs administered to treat disease in livestock and were not intended to address entirely new GE animals that can pass along their altered genes to the next generation. The approval of the GE salmon opens the door to other genetically engineered fish and shellfish, as well as chickens, cows, sheep, goats, rabbits and pigs that are reportedly in development.
The lawsuit also highlights FDA's failure to protect the environment and consult wildlife agencies in its review process, as required by federal law. U.S. Atlantic salmon and many populations of Pacific salmon, are protected by the Endangered Species Act and in danger of extinction. Salmon is a keystone species and unique runs have been treasured by residents for thousands of years. Diverse salmon runs today sustain thousands of American fishing families and are highly valued in domestic markets as a healthy, domestic, “green" food.
“Atlantic salmon populations including our endangered Gulf of Maine fish are hanging on by a thread—they can't afford additional threats posed by GE salmon," said Ed Friedman from Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, one of the parties who successfully petitioned to classify most Maine Atlantic salmon as endangered. “The law requires agencies like FDA, who aren't fisheries biologists, to get review and approval from scientists with that expertise. FDA's refusal to do this before allowing commercialization of GE salmon is not only irresponsible, it violates the law."
When GE salmon escape or are accidentally released into the environment, the new species could threaten wild populations by mating with endangered salmon species, outcompeting them for scarce resources and habitat and/or introducing new diseases. Studies have shown that there is a high risk for GE organisms to escape into the natural environment and that GE salmon can crossbreed with native fish. Transgenic contamination has become common in the GE plant context, where contamination episodes have cost U.S. farmers billions of dollars over the past decade. In wild organisms like fish, it could be even more damaging.
“Once they escape, you can't put these transgenic fish back in the bag. They're manufactured to outgrow wild salmon, and if they cross-breed, it could have irreversible impacts on the natural world," Dune Lankard, a salmon fisherman and the Center for Biological Diversity's Alaska representative, said. “This kind of dangerous tinkering could easily morph into a disaster for wild salmon that will be impossible to undo."
The world's preeminent experts on GE fish and risk assessment, as well as biologists at U.S. wildlife agencies charged with protecting fish and wildlife heavily criticized the FDA decision for failing to evaluate these impacts. FDA ignored their concerns in the final approval.
“The FDA has failed to adequately examine the risks associated with transgenic salmon," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said. “The long term effects of people eating genetically modified foods have never been adequately addressed—and this GE salmon is no exception. This fish is unnecessary, so why take the risk?"
The plaintiff coalition, jointly represented by legal counsel from Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, includes Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Golden Gate Salmon Association, Kennebec Reborn, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, Ecology Action Centre, Food & Water Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Cascadia Wildlands and Center for Food Safety.
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It's been 115 years since the first of six dams began regulating flows on the Klamath River, which runs from the high desert of eastern Oregon to the northern California coast.
By 2020 most of them will be gone—and the river's once-abundant salmon runs hopefully on the rebound—if two new agreements between tribal, state and federal governments, the operator and other stakeholders work out as planned.
On Wednesday, standing before the mouth of the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation in California, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the federal departments of the interior and commerce, along with the states of Oregon and California and the Karuk and Yurok tribes, have signed a new agreement with electric power company PacifiCorp to decommission and remove four hydropower dams along the Klamath River.
The agreement creates a “path forward for the largest river restoration in the history of the United States," along with “the largest dam removal project in the history of our nation," Jewell said.
The new pact will allow PacifiCorp to take three dams in California—Copco 1, Copco 2 and the Iron Gate Dam—and the John C. Boyle Dam in Oregon out of service by using the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's established licensing process for hydropower.
PacifiCorp's license to operate the dams expired in 2006. An earlier agreement to authorize their removal, created in 2010, required Congressional approval and expired at the end of 2015 after Congress adjourned without enacting it.
“From the company's point of view, we have the same agreement [today] that we negotiated since 2008," said Bob Gravely, a spokesperson for PacifiCorp. “This is simply a way to continue pursuing it without needing involvement from Congress."
The second agreement commits the state and federal governments to assisting farmers and ranchers in the river's upper basin with the likely financial and regulatory impacts of returning fish runs, which will need to be protected from irrigation infrastructure.
While the Klamath River's runs of spring and fall Chinook salmon have not been formally declared endangered, they have been faltering for years. And since 1997, the Klamath River run of coho salmon has been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“By removing dams we're reopening hundreds of miles of spawning habitat and dramatically improving water quality," said Craig Tucker, natural resources policy advocate for the 4,000-member Karuk Tribe of California, which has signed on to the new agreement. “The Karuk, and the Yurok and other people in this basin are salmon people. Their cultures, their economies, their religion, all rely upon the return of the salmon."
The removal of the four dams will be the necessary first step in restoring the river's fish habitat, Tucker said, but much more will need to be done, including restoration of marshes and other wetlands in the upper basin.
Lack of salmon has led many Karuk to consume a more Western diet, Tucker said, leading to rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity in the tribe that outpace national averages. “Historically, research shows that Karuk consumed 1.2 pounds of salmon per person per day. Now we're lucky if each person gets four pounds a year," he said.
The absence of the salmon has also harmed the tribe's religious practices, including one ceremony tied to the arrival of the first spring Chinook. “The spring salmon is probably the most at-risk run of salmon in the river," Tucker said. “You can't have that ceremony without salmon."
Hosts of other important ceremonies traditionally “feed everyone with salmon who comes and if there are no fish, they can't meet that obligation," Tucker added. “It would be like if the Pope didn't have enough wine and crackers for mass."
“We see removal of these dams as the single biggest act of restoration that can be carried out on the Klamath," Tucker said. “I would assert that it's the biggest salmon restoration project in U.S. history."
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
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A new report released Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) largely unchanged from two years ago, at one in 68 children. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health contributed to the study, which showed boys were 4.5 times more likely to be identified with ASD than girls. The rate is one in 42 among boys and one in 189 among girls.
This is the sixth report by the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM), which has used the same surveillance methods for more than a decade, a tracking system that provides estimates of the prevalence and characteristics of autism among 8-year-old children in 11 communities.
Here are the estimated prevalence rates of ASD in the U.S. reported by previous data:
- one in 68 children in the 2014 report that looked at 2010 data
- one in 88 children in the 2012 report that looked at 2008 data
- one in 110 children in the 2009 report that looked at 2006 data
- one in 150 children in the 2007 report that looked at 2000 and 2002 data
According to John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers say it is too early to tell if the overall prevalence rate has stabilized because the numbers vary widely across ADDM communities. The school goes on to say that "the causes of autism are not completely understood; studies show that both environment and genetics may play a role. There is no known cure, and no treatment or intervention has been proven to reduce the prevalence of ASD."
Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation and mother of a daughter with autism, told CNN that this new report is not a sign everything is fine. "It points to the need for more research to understand nuances in data to be able to better serve all children diagnosed with autism," she said. The report suggests there are delays in acting on early concerns, said Rice.
Rice attributed the lack of early identification to a "capacity crisis." "There are not enough quality providers out there to provide those therapy services that are needed," she said. "I think a huge thing we need to do at the early age and across the life span of people with autism is ... identify and support individuals with autism."
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., environmental lawyer and founder of The Mercury Project, finds the leveling off of the prevalence of autism to coincide with the decline of thimerosal in three childhood vaccines.
"Interestingly, this represents the first group of children that were not exposed to thimerosal through the HepB, HiB and DTaP infant vaccines," Kennedy said. "Also, uptake of the maternal flu vaccine was below 50 percent. This is the first time essentially on record that autism rates haven't gone up since 1989."
Brian Hooker, associate professor of biology at Simpson University, agrees. He told EcoWatch:
"I'm not surprised that the autism numbers started to stabilize between birth years 2002 and 2004. By 2004, all of the back stock of thimerosal containing HepB, DTaP and HiB vaccines (which were no longer manufactured after 2001) would have been removed from the shelves and these infants (reflected in the latest CDC numbers) did not receive thimerosal in any of their vaccines, with the exception of the flu shot which was administered maternally and at 6 and 7 months of age. Flu shot uptake maternally and in infants was fairly low at this time but has increased since 2004.
"In Denmark, when thimerosal was phased out of infant vaccines in 1992, rates of autism spectrum disorder prevalence slowly dropped over 33 percent over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, because of the thimerosal-containing maternal flu shot, I don't think we'll see this profound of a drop in the U.S."
Regardless of the reason why the results of the new CDC study show the rate of autism unchanged, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all kids are screened for autism at ages 18 and 24 months.
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Americans still drink a lot of soda: Sales in the U.S. were more than $70 billion in 2014, according to Euromonitor International, well ahead of China, the runner-up market, with $28.4 billion. The way we think about, talk about and legislate soda has changed rather drastically—and we drink relatively less of it too, with consumption dropping 25 percent between 1998 and 2014. So with the threat of soda taxes and warning labels and an increased popular understanding of the links between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are looking to sell more of their products elsewhere—especially in developing markets.
The increased focus on countries such as India, Brazil and others is the subject of a new report released Tuesday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer-advocacy group that has frequently critiqued the beverage industry for its role in the obesity crisis. “These are countries with growing populations, growing incomes and with governments less likely to pursue aggressive strategies to deter consumption," Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI's president and a coauthor of the report, said. And as the report argues, those unfettered new markets will soon suffer from more of the diet-related public health ills that the U.S. is grappling with, from obesity to type 2 diabetes.
Coke and Pepsi, which together account for $870 billion in annual soda sales, are by no means newcomers to the global market. But the sales trends are shifting: Emerging and developed markets have gone from representing about 55 percent of overall soda sales in 2008, according to the report, to nearly 70 percent projected for 2018. Soda sale forecasts for the next three years are flat for North America and declining slightly in Western Europe; sales in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa are all set to rise.
As Ahmet Bozer, executive vice president and president of Coca-Cola International, said in 2014, “There's 600 million teenagers who have not had a Coke in the last week" and many of them live in these emerging markets. Latin America, for example, is soda's largest market and Mexico infamously has the highest per-capita consumption in the world.
While Coke will funnel huge amounts of money into these markets in the coming years—investing, according to CSPI, $12.4 billion in Mexico between 2010 and 2020 and another $17 billion in African markets—governments are showing signs of moving more quickly on public health policies to combat obesity and the like by limiting soda consumption.
Mexico, after all, passed a national soda tax in 2013, and research shows that it is working to reduce the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages residents drink. A local ordinance in Berkeley, California, now taxes soda and while a similar measure was voted down in San Francisco, the city will soon require health-warning labels on sugary drinks. As India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Great Britain all consider national soda taxes, Reuters said on Monday, “2016 could be the year of the sugar tax."
Whether a soda tax in a country like India—which is already a major market and will see a total of $5 billion in investment from Coke alone between 2012 and 2020—will slow soda sales there and create a protracted battle between government and industry (or both) remains to be seen. But with Indian officials considering a tax as high as 40 percent—much more than Mexico's peso-per-liter tax—it would seem that the political realities are shifting against soda.
But with soda companies blanketing developing countries with billboards, TV ads, sports-team sponsorships and plenty of icy-cold cola, the likes of Coke and Pepsi still hold the popular imagination.
“In regions where poverty prevails and most people do not participate in the world of hyper-consumption, drinking a Coke or other extremely sugary and intensely marketed drink is the result of an aspirational act—the desire to belong to a world from which they are excluded," Alejandro Calvillo Unna, a Mexican consumer advocate, wrote in his preface to the CSPI report.
“Companies take advantage of the vulnerability of those communities to market their products," he continued. “The result: racially and culturally discriminatory marketing practices that worsen the poor health conditions and marginalization these groups already experience."
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
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The new movie Consumed tackles the controversial world of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in unprecedented fashion, offering insight into their risks. Its message could not be more timely in the wake of the recent news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first genetically engineered salmon for human consumption. The fish, like all genetically engineered ingredients in this country, will not be labeled, leaving American consumers in the dark. Like many food and environmental safety activists around the world, I’m outraged.
American legal clerk and environmental activist, Erin Brockovich poses during a photo shoot at the Stamford Hotel in Brisbane, Australia, on Feb. 17, 2015. Photo credit: Jamie Hanson—Newspix / Getty Images
The biotech industry and the FDA have hijacked not only our basic rights as consumers, but also our fundamental human rights in the face of corporate monopolization of our food supply. They are jeopardizing our health and the environment more than ever before. When will the government agencies put in place to protect us stop servicing the bottom line of corporations?
The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, has announced that it is going to sue the FDA over this unethical decision, citing opposition from more than 40 members of Congress, more than 300 environmental, consumer, health and animal welfare organizations, salmon and fishing groups and associations, food companies, chefs and restaurants and about 2 million people who filed public comments, the most the FDA has ever received on a decision.
In detailed comments submitted to the FDA, Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, argues the FDA review process was based on “sloppy science” and the genetically engineered salmon could pose many risks. “Because FDA’s assessment is inadequate, we are particularly concerned that this salmon may pose an increased risk of severe, even life-threatening allergic reactions to sensitive individuals,” he writes.
Hansen also notes that “this analysis does not conform to FDA standard for assessment of a New Animal Drug.” That’s right, the genetically engineered salmon is being regulated as an “animal drug"—not a food, an “animal drug.” Here lies the inherent hypocrisy plaguing our regulatory agencies. The FDA does not label genetically engineered foods, including the newly approved salmon, because they have deemed them “substantially equivalent” to their non-genetically engineered counterparts. In essence, they are not different enough to be labeled. Yet they are so different that they are the first organisms in history to be patented. The logic is confounding.
The FDA, whose mission is “protecting and promoting your health,” has failed consumers by approving the commercialization of genetically engineered salmon. Not only has it used inadequate science, but it has also turned its backs on the majority of Americans who believe they have a fundamental right to know what is in their food. A 2013 New York Times poll found that 93 percent of Americans want GMOs to be labeled. More than 60 countries label GMOs and in some cases even ban them, but the U.S. still does not.
To my dismay, genetically modified seeds have not undergone any long-term safety testing by the FDA on animals or humans and the scientific community remains divided on their safety. I’m shocked by those who think that to question GMOs is “anti-science.” This gross mischaracterization must be put into question if we are to ensure food democracy.
Some of the most respected scientific bodies in the world including Codex Alimentarius (jointly run by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural organization of the U.N.), The American Medical Association, The British Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, have stated that, through pre-market safety assessments, more research needs to be done on GMOs before we can truthfully determine their safety.
In addition, since genetically modified crops are married to the chemicals sprayed on them, their consumption poses an overwhelming array of potential risks. According to a 2012 study published in Environmental Sciences Europe, GMO herbicide-tolerant crops have led to a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use in the U.S. between 1996 and 2011. The World Health Organization recently concluded that glyphosate, the main ingredient in the most-used herbicide on GMOs, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” One study found glyphosate in 60 percent to 100 percent of the rain water in some agricultural areas. More than 3,200 elementary schools are within 1,000 feet of genetically modified corn or soybean fields—what will be the effects of these toxic chemicals on children?
With the FDA’s approval of the first genetically engineered animal now a reality, we have set a dangerous precedent for what is to come. As citizens, we must demand our voices to be heard at this crucial moment in our nation’s history. Tell your congressional representatives to stand up for your rights, spread the message on social media and help spark a larger conversation about the food we are eating in this country.
Erin Brockovich is a consumer advocate.
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The Center for Food Safety, an nonprofit organization, announced plans to sue the federal agency. Grocery store chains around the country have also made commitments to not sell the controversial fish.
“The fallout from this decision will have enormous impact on the environment. Center for Food Safety has no choice but to file suit to stop the introduction of this dangerous contaminant,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “FDA has neglected its responsibility to protect the public.”
Kimbrell, on behalf of the environmental organization, submitted a citizen petition to the FDA requiring "foods that are genetically engineered organisms, or contain ingredients derived from genetically engineered organisms" be labeled under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act.
The FDA has since repsonded to the petition with a 35-page document that denies the Center for Food Safety's request. It states:
Under the FD&C Act [the] FDA cannot require that all foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class, be labeled as having been genetically engineered.
Further, while we appreciate consumer interest in the labeling of food derived from genetically engineered plants, consumer interest alone does not provide a sufficient basis to require labeling disclosing whether a food has been produced with or without the use of such genetic engineering.
AquaBounty's salmon is genetically altered to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. According to Reuters, "the fish is essentially Atlantic salmon with a Pacific salmon gene for faster growth and a gene from the eel-like ocean pout that promotes year-round growth."
It will take about two more years to reach the market as distribution is being worked out, the Massachusetts-based company says.
Nearly 2 million people filed public comments opposing the approval of GMO salmon by the FDA, the largest number of comments the FDA has ever received on an action.
A Pew Research Poll last year also revealed that 57 percent of U.S. adults believe that GMO-foods are “generally unsafe” to eat.
Some people might be wondering whether this fish will make it onto plates since "more than 60 grocery store chains representing more than 9,000 stores across the U.S. have made commitments to not sell the GMO salmon, including Safeway, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi and many others," according to the environmental nonprofit, Friends of the Earth.
However, many Big Food grocers are absent from this list. Costco, one of the largest retailers of salmon and seafood in the U.S., remains open to selling GMO salmon despite vehement opposition from activists. Similarly, Walmart, the country's largest supermarket chain (which accounts for 15 percent of fresh food sales in the U.S.), has not announced whether or not it will sell GMO salmon.
Additionally, a lack of GMO labeling laws might mean that consumers will not have a choice over the matter. AquAdvantage Salmon, the trade name for the genetically modified Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies, will not require a GMO label under FDA guidelines.
Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, wrote after yesterday's announcement from the FDA:
"To add insult to injury, this product will be hitting store shelves without labeling, making it impossible for concerned consumers to distinguish GMO from non-GMO salmon. Not only does this ignore consumers’ fundamental right to know how our food is produced, it is simply bad for business, since many consumers will avoid purchasing any salmon for fear it is genetically engineered."
Hauter also says that the "FDA’s decision also disregards AquaBounty’s disastrous environmental record, which greatly raises the stakes for an environmentally damaging escape of GMO salmon."
Critics of GMO salmon have called it "frankenfish" and have made their feelings about it very clear, as seen in this video:
“Despite FDA’s flawed and irresponsible approval of the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption, it’s clear that there is no place in the U.S. market for genetically engineered salmon,” said Lisa Archer, food and technology program director at Friends of the Earth. “People don’t want to eat it and grocery stores are refusing to sell it.”
Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, said that the decision to approve GMO salmon without a mandatory disclosure is "yet another example of how FDA’s outdated policy keeps consumers in the dark."
The FDA as well as many major food companies maintain that GMO foods are safe for consumption and for the environment and that mandatory GMO labels would be misleading. As EcoWatch reported in October, Big Food has spent millions of dollars and extensively lobbied lawmakers for a national ban on GMO labels ... and it might actually happen.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of H.R. 1599 in July, which bans states from requiring GMO labels on food. It also blocks the FDA from ever implementing mandatory GMO food labeling and allows food companies to continue to make “natural” claims for foods containing GMO ingredients. The bill has been dubbed the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” Act or DARK Act by opponents. A Senate version of the bill could hit the floor in the coming weeks.
“Consumers will have no way of knowing whether the salmon they are buying comes from nature or comes from a lab," Faber added. "It makes sense to give consumers the right to know and to choose whether this fish, or any other food that contains GMO ingredients, is right for their dinner table.
“A non-judgmental, factual disclosure of the presence of GMOs is all we are asking for. FDA’s continued reliance on voluntary labeling schemes will only further consumer confusion. It’s time the federal government trusted American consumers enough to make their own decisions about this novel technology."
The debate over the FDA's approval of GMOs raises questions about the future of our food. As Ecowatch reported earlier this month, in addition to GMO salmon, there are two different varieties of GMO pork that are currently in development: a pig that is “edited” with a warthog gene to resist African swine fever; and a “double-muscled” designed to have leaner meat and have a higher yield of meat per animal.
Genetically engineered cows are also in development: one that produces B-lactoglobulin-free milk (which causes allergies and digestive and respiratory reactions in infants), and another type of cow that has been genetically modified to be born without horns to reduce the risk of injury to farmers and other animals.
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As the food fight over the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) stalls in Congress, state-level GMO mandates are gaining steam. At least 30 states have introduced some type of legislation in recent years, including three states—Connecticut, Maine and Vermont—that have actually passed GMO labeling mandates.
With the food transparency movement escalating nationwide, there are at least eight states to keep on our radar, according to Politico's Morning Agriculture blog.
64 other countries around the world and 89 percent of Americans voters are in support of it. Photo credit: Flickr
1. New York
Legislators have introduced nearly 70 bills since 2011 related to GMOs. The bills cover everything from the labeling of vaccines containing GMOs to prohibiting the sale of GMO salmon to the labeling food and seeds.
Last week, lawmakers debated a bill that would free the state from its 2014 law that requires four contiguous states—Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut—to also enact label laws before triggering their own.
“We want to remove the contingencies to free Maine to act on its own,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michelle Dunphy (D-Old Town) told the Bangor Daily News. “Consumers have the right to choose. I don’t feel it will have a huge impact on how people shop.”
The bill was tabled and will resurface in a work session later this legislative session.
A bill was introduced last September that would require that all foods sold in the state containing GMOs be clearly labeled. According to MA Right to Know, 155 out of 200 state legislators, including 126 from the House of Representatives and 29 from the Senate have signed on as co-sponsors to the labeling bill in 2015. The bill is currently sitting with the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
4. Rhode Island
Lawmakers are considering at least three bills that would require GMO foods to be labeled. Politico reports that the first bill requires all food businesses with more than $500,000 of gross sales to post signs informing consumers of GMO food products unless it is already labeled. The second measure requires milk and milk products from genetically engineered animals or that contain a GMO ingredient to carry a label. The third measure would require all GMO products be labeled by Jan. 1, 2017.
Following years of grassroots campaigning, state Senator Maria Sachs and state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda have introduced three GMO labeling bills in Florida: Senate bills SB 1700 and SB 1708, and House bill HB 1369, Natural Society reported. The bills require labeling of GMO foods and raw agricultural commodities, and require the state to provide lists of raw agricultural commodities at high risk or potentially at risk for cultivation in a genetically engineered form. The two have campaigned heavily for GMO labeling for the past three years. Here's a video of Senator Sachs at an anti-Monsanto rally in Miami in March 2013.
The state already requires the labeling of GMO salmon, and now the state is weighing a measure that would ban the sale of any GMO fish or fish product in the state and another resolution that would disapprove of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of AquAdvantage salmon, Politico reported. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski has long been vehemently opposed the FDA's controversial decision and recently threatened to block the appointment of the next FDA commissioner, Dr. Robert Califf, because of it.
Two bills related to labeling genetically engineered foods have been introduced in the Missouri legislature. The first requires the labeling of GMO foods. The second calls for the use of science-based data to assess and regulate of modern agricultural technologies. Right to Know Missouri cited a poll taken in Missouri that indicated 91.1 percent of people supported enacting a GMO labeling law.
8. New Jersey
The bill to label genetically engineered foods would require products to be labeled six months following enactment of the measure. The state Senate is set to consider this legislation.
In 2014, Connecticut and Maine became the first two states to require GMO labels but their rules will only kick in after other states enact similar laws. Vermont, however, set a precedent with the passage of the first-ever no strings attached labeling mandate that's set to go into effect this July—that is, unless Big Food stops it.
As EcoWatch exclusively reported in October, the Grocery Manufacturers Association—which represents more than 300 food and beverage titans such as ConAgra, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg and Hershey—has spent millions and lobbied heavily to nullify or preempt state labeling laws. A spokesperson told us that the association “supports a uniform national standard for GMO labeling ... not a patchwork of different state labeling mandates that are confusing and costly to consumers.”
In a blow to the industry, however, Congress voted in December to not include a policy rider in the federal omnibus spending bill that would have blocked states from implementing mandatory GMO labeling laws.
Following the decision, Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a closed-door meeting earlier this month with food industry honchos and GMO labeling advocates to hammer out a compromise.
Few details have emerged from the meeting but it appears that Big Food's proposal of a "Smart Label," which consists of a scannable QR code, has been shunned by opponents.
Politico reported Thursday that Tara Cook-Littman, founder of GMO-Free Connecticut, says she and four other advocates "stood strong and united for mandatory, on package GMO labeling."
"We are thankful to Secretary Vilsack for the time he spent with us, but in the end, there was not enough common ground to emerge from that room with a GMO Labeling proposal agreed upon by leaders from both camps," Cook-Littman wrote in a blog post on the website of Citizens for GMO Labeling.
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Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made history when the federal agency approved the first genetically modified (GMO) animal for human consumption: AquaBounty Technologies' GMO salmon. The controversial move has since opened floodgates about the future of food.
Whatever side of the fence you're on about this fish—which has been genetically altered to grow to market size twice as fast as wild salmon—you'll have no idea you're eating it anyway. The FDA has not required the product to carry a label.
As the controversy of GMO labeling enters mainstream dialogue, this issue is quickly becoming a heated one. Here are the big five facts you need to know about the current standings of the debate:
1. The majority of the American public wants a label.
According to a new poll of 800 registered voters commissioned by a coalition of consumer and environmental groups—including Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports—nearly 90 percent of Americans want mandatory labeling on genetically modified foods.
This is compounded by Tuesday's New York Times editorial board in reaction to the FDA's approval of GMO salmon. In a significant reversal of opinion from the newspaper's 2013 editorial board, the board advocated for a label and stated, "consumers deserve to know what they are eating."
"The FDA said there is no reason to mandate labeling because there is no material difference between engineered and natural fish on qualities like nutritional content. But the value of that information should be left to consumers to decide," the board wrote.
Still, it seems consumer concern has fallen on the FDA's deaf ears. After the approval of the fish, the Center for Food Safety announced plans to sue the FDA and submitted a citizen petition requiring GMO foods be labeled. The FDA rejected the petition and stated, "While we appreciate consumer interest in the labeling of food derived from genetically engineered plants, consumer interest alone does not provide a sufficient basis to require labeling disclosing whether a food has been produced with or without the use of such genetic engineering."
2. Monsanto and Big Food are trying very hard to stop state-wide labeling.
Another hurdle in GMO labeling comes from the food industry itself. GMO food is nearly ubiquitous in American diets. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—the world's largest trade association for 300 major food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and ConAgra—says that GMOs have been around for the past 20 years, and today, 70-80 percent of foods in the U.S. contain ingredients that have been genetically modified.
Even though several states such as Vermont have passed laws requiring the labeling of GMOs, the GMA has spent millions and and heavily lobbied to block state labeling mandates. Their concern, basically, is that it will be too expensive and complicated for food companies to make a special label for Vermont but not for the other 49 states.
"A deep concern is that we'll end up with a patchwork quilt of state-by-state regulations where you'll end up in a place where you can't move a can of soup from one state to the other," Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant told CBS News in a new interview.
Grant also said that the cost of the labels would be passed onto the consumer: "The consumer is going to end up paying four or five hundred dollars more a year on their grocery bills."
No other company has been more intertwined with the GMO debate than Monsanto, the genetically modified seed giant and producer of Roundup, an herbicide that's sprayed on "Roundup Ready" crops all over the world.
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Grant said that states' adoption of mandatory GMO labels results in "confusion" and "more expenses" rather than transparency. Instead, he favors federal labeling requirements that's similar to the labels you see on organic foods, CBS News reported.
3. A federal law could ban state labeling laws completely.
It’s unclear if we’ll will ever see labels for genetically altered food, period—not just for GMO salmon. The hotly contested Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, dubbed by opponents as the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act or DARK Act, currently languishes in the Senate.
The act, H.R. 1599, which passed the House of Representatives in July, bans states from issuing mandatory labeling laws for foods containing GMOs. The bill gives the FDA the authority to establish national standards and regulations for GMO food. The Department of Agriculture would be granted full discretion over the law’s implementation.
The unsaid deadline for the Senate version is sometime before July 2016, when Vermont's GMO labeling law takes effect. As EcoWatch reported exclusively in October, Big Food is already making some preparations in anticipation of Vermont's labeling law whether or not they are successful in blocking it.
Still, the New York Times editorial pointed out that "industry groups are pressing the Senate to attach similar language as a rider to an omnibus spending bill," but added that "the Senate should rebuff that tactic and allow states to adopt mandatory labeling laws if they wish."
4. What about QR codes?
Some politicians and food industry members have advocated for a QR code as a good alternative to GMO labeling. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that QR codes are a way to provide consumers with the information they’re asking for without signaling there is anything wrong with a product.
This idea however has been met with backlash from several consumer groups. “Not everyone has a smartphone or lives in an area with reliable Internet service,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. "And even for those who do, it’s inconvenient to have to scan every food you put into your grocery cart.”
A new national poll by the Mellman Group has these key findings:
- Almost nine in 10 (88 percent) would prefer a printed GMO label on the food package rather than use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.
- Just 17 percent say they have ever scanned a bar code to get information and only 16 percent say they have ever scanned a QR code.
- If bar codes were used, more than 80 percent say food companies should not be allowed to use the app to gather information about shoppers.
5. This GMO food fight isn't really about the labels.
By the year 2050, the Earth’s population will reach more than 9 billion people. With so many mouths to feed, the food industry argues that GMOs are the answer to global food security, since these plants have been spliced and diced to resist herbicides and pesticides and theoretically yield more crops.
But that's ignoring the fact that the two most widely planted crops in the U.S.—GMO corn and GMO soybeans—are constantly blanketed by chemicals. The U.S. Geological Survey found that farmers have sprayed 2.6 billion pounds of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide on U.S. agricultural land between 1992 and 2012. Not only that, Monsanto's Roundup has been linked to a whole spate of health problems and was infamously classified as "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization’s France-based cancer research arm in March.
The health impacts of glyphosate is still maddeningly unsettled. Last month, the European Food Safety Authority rejected the IARC's classification of glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. Now, DW reports that nearly 100 scientists from around the world have published an open letter calling on the European Commission "to disregard the flawed EFSA finding on glyphosate," and for a "transparent, open and credible review of the scientific literature."
As for GMO animal products, while AquaBounty says that their fish safe to eat and the production of it would put less of a strain on wild and farmed salmon populations, there are a variety of other factors to consider. The FDA’s decision "disregards AquaBounty’s disastrous environmental record, which greatly raises the stakes for an environmentally damaging escape of GMO salmon," Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, wrote. "In recent years, AquaBounty facilities outside the U.S. have dealt with an accidental disease outbreak, an accident that lead to 'lost' salmon, and a $9,500 fine from Panamanian regulators who found the company in breach of that country’s environmental laws."
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Center for Food Safety (CFS), Food & Water Watch and Friends of the Earth-U.S. commend Ecojustice, Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society for challenging the Canadian federal government’s approval of AquaBounty’s genetically engineered (GE) salmon.
AquaBounty alleges that it will grow the GE salmon eggs in Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) and then transport them to Panama, where they will grow to full size and then be shipped back to U.S. markets. However, the approval would also allow the production and grow out of the genetically engineered salmon elsewhere in Canada. The controversial GE fish has been proposed for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the agency has yet to make a final decision.
“This case is an important step in preserving native salmon populations and the environment from an unwanted, untested, novel threat," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for CFS. “The short-sighted and unlawful approval by Canadian officials must be addressed, and we commend our colleagues in Canada for holding their government, and AquaBounty, accountable.”
“Unfortunately, it looks like the Canadian government, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is failing to acknowledge the real threat GE salmon poses to the environment,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Today’s challenge of the approval of GE salmon is an important effort to protect the public in both Canada and the U.S. from this unnecessary risk.”
The main legal arguments of the case are based on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The groups assert the approval is unlawful because, among other reasons, it failed to assess whether genetically engineered salmon will become invasive, putting ecosystems and species such as wild salmon at risk. The groups also alleged the government acted unlawfully in purporting to complete an assessment of whether AquAdvantage salmon is toxic or capable of becoming toxic without obtaining all information required by the law.
In addition, the groups allege the Minister of the Environment had no jurisdiction to publish a notice setting out permitted uses, based on the incomplete toxicity assessment of AquAdvantage salmon. The groups are asking the court to invalidate the assessment, and require the government to comply with the law before permitting the production of these genetically engineered organisms.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that Canadian and U.S. regulators are asleep at the wheel and are failing in their duty to conduct proper assessments that put people and the environment first,” said Lisa Archer, food and technology program director at Friends of the Earth-U.S. “It’s therefore not surprising that polls show the majority of consumers don’t want this risky fish.”
Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch and Friends of the Earth-US have long opposed the potential approval of GE salmon, successfully spearheading U.S. campaigns for over thirteen years. Most recently, in response to the latest FDA proposal, CFS filed extensive legal and scientific comments detailing why the proposal was contrary to sound science and responsible governance. Nearly 2 million people have filed objections to the FDA’s proposed approval.