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Labeling of genetically modified food back after failure of I-522

— The push to label genetically-modified organisms is back on the table.

But the focus is on genetically engineered, or transgenic, fish. A transgenic animal has had one animal’s DNA spliced with another to create an animal with new characteristics.

House Bill 2143 would require labels to let consumers know what kind of fish they are purchasing at the supermarket – whether it’s farm-raised, wild or “genetically engineered.”

Before last Friday's hearing on the bill in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, bill sponsor Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, said he planned to introduce two amendments to more clearly define terms in the proposed legislation.

Under the amendments, the bill’s definition of genetically engineered would be changed to “transgenic” and it would target only fish raised in natural freshwater, such as lakes and streams, rather than enclosed tanks. The changes would address two concerns raised at the hearing by John Dentler of Troutlodge, the oldest aquaculture company in the state.

Troutlodge, headquartered in Bonney Lake, produces triploid trout eggs. With three sets of chromosomes instead of two, the fish are sterile.

Dentler says the bill is vague in its definitions and it doesn’t address the triploid fish. Dentler also said the bill’s definition of “state waters” is not defined well enough and may encompass fish research performed by University of Washington and Washington State University.

Prior to the hearing, Condotta recognized those concerns and said they would be addressed.

If approved, the bill would still prohibit the production of transgenic fish in freshwater net pens to reduce the risk of transgenic fish escaping into native-fish habitats. Condotta said he questions the sterility of transgenic fish and doesn’t want to take any chance of crossbreeding.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve genetically engineered fish for human consumption, but some in the industry expect that policy to change.

AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts is producing genetically engineered fish, AquAdvantage Salmon, at a facility in Canada. Canadian officials believe the fish pose no risk to the environment.

That belief was recently challenged by Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society, two non-profit activist groups in Canada. The lawsuit says Environment Canada acted “unlawfully” when they approved AquaBounty’s product.

AquaBounty is seeking FDA approval to raise transgenic, sterile female salmon in the U.S., FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said.

AquaBounty's method of altering the DNA of the Atlantic salmon is to take a growth gene from the Chinook salmon and "splice" it with the DNA of the Atlantic salmon.

The splice creates a fish that reaches maturity much faster than its natural counterparts, and therefore can be sold for food more quickly.

AquaBounty’s website says its fish should not be labeled "genetically engineered" because "the nutritional and biological composition of AquAdvantage salmon is identical to Atlantic salmon.”

The FDA agrees.

"In September 2010… based on the data and information received to date, food from AquAdvantage salmon appears to be as safe to eat as farmed, conventionally bred Atlantic salmon," Eisenman said.

Condotta disagrees.

"This is not similar,” he said. “This is a different product entirely."

Some large retailers such as Target, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have said they won't sell transgenic fish, even if the FDA approves it.

Washington’s existing fish-farming industry also has concerns, Condotta said.

"People might reject farmed fish not knowing if they are buying GMO," he said.

However, at the hearing on Friday, Alan Cook of Icicle Seafoods said he opposed the bill.

“It’s already prohibited, according to state regulations,” he said. “This law is not required.”

The production of transgenic fish is already banned in state marine waters, said John Kerwin, fish health program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Kerwin said the bill would extend Washington Administrative Code 220-76-100 to include freshwater.

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, has introduced an identical bill, Senate Bill 6184. She also testified at the hearing Friday.

“It’s vital that we send the message to the federal government that we do not want this ‘new animal drug’ turned loose in our market,” Chase said.

The FDA has classified genetically modified animals as a “new animal drug.” Some in the industry say this categorization is its own problem.

“They [the FDA] don't have the framework for genetically engineered animals," said Trudy Bialic, spokeswoman for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. "This is a gross concern. The criteria for the assessment is less strict than for food additives."

Bialic was a strong supporter of Initiative 522, the GMO Initiative, but believes this more narrow approach will be a better fit for Washington.

Condotta said he hopes consumers will be more supportive of this bill because it focuses on fish, rather than all GMOs.

Last year, voters rejected I-522 with 51 percent opposed.

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