Tester sees progress in genetically modified food labeling

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Labels for genetically modified food have been a slippery fish for biotech opponents, but a new amendment targeting salmon might set the hook, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said.

Montana’s Democratic junior senator recently joined a thin bipartisan majority on the Senate Appropriations Committee to require labeling of genetically modified salmon.

Should the labeling law lure enough votes from the full Senate and House, farmed salmon genetically modified to grow twice as fast as regular salmon would be the United States’ first food with a GM label.

Though developed, GM salmon is not yet for sale. The Food and Drug Administration has concluded that the salmon detractors call “frankenfish” is safe to eat. Nongovernment scientists have voiced concerns about the GM salmon escaping the farm and mating with brown trout.

“What I did was, I approached this from the standpoint that consumers ought to have a right to know where their food comes from, and from labeling, what’s in their food,” Tester said Thursday.

Public support for more tightly regulating genetically modified food appears to be strengthening, as a few state legislatures approving or considering GM labels. But congressional lawmakers haven’t followed suit.

Senate lawmakers soundly rejected a GM labeling amendment to the 2013 farm bill earlier this month. Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a law limiting the ability of judges to stop the planting or harvesting of GM crops even if there was evidence of health risks.

GM opponents dubbed the law the “Monsanto Protection Act,” which was eventually signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Tester said many lawmakers know little about genetically modified foods, even though crops genetically modified to survive herbicide sprayings or resist disease have become mainstays of farming. Corn genetically modified to survive sprayings of the Monsanto weed killer Roundup is a major source of animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup, a key ingredient in prepared foods. Canola, sugar beet and soybean farmers have also quickly switched to genetically modified versions of those crops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly concluded that genetically modified foods were not only safe, but also not different enough from non-GM foods to require labeling. Citing those federal conclusions, GM advocates have said the labeling burden should on non-GM food producers seeking distinction.

But with GM ingredients in so many foods, it would be difficult to determine for labeling purposes whether some foods are GM-free, Tester said. The GM food producer knows for sure, which is why he should be responsible for labeling, Tester said.

Sourcing food isn’t easy and in the case of the seafood can be very difficult, said Perry McNeese of Good Earth Market in Billings.

“When it comes to produce and dairy and meat, it can become difficult to know what you’re buying,” McNeese said. “So I ask a lot of questions.”

Good Earth Market doesn’t carry farmed salmon, McNeese said, because it’s difficult to tell what it has been fed. The market does carry some farmed trout, but the source is a verified user of natural feed and free-flowing stream water.

McNeese uses the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list as a reference guide to buying seafood. By those guidelines, Good Earth only buys wild salmon caught in Alaska or New Zealand. He was pleased to see the labeling law for GM salmon pass out of Senate Appropriations.

“I think this is great,” McNeese said. “This battle, as I see it, you have to win one skirmish at a time.”