The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering whether to approve for human consumption a genetically modified (GM) salmon that holds promise for satisfying the growing demand for seafood and to allow wild stocks to revive. The science on “transgenics” is firmly on the side of approval. The more pressing debate—largely a consequence of unwarranted regulation—centers on product labeling. Fortunately, that’s rather simple to remedy.
The AquAdvantage salmon, which grows twice as fast as its farm-raised cousin, was bred with a Chinook salmon gene for a hormone that accelerates growth in the first year. Genetic material from an ocean pout, an eel-like species, was also introduced to keep the growth hormone active throughout the year.
If approved, the fast-growing fish would become the first animal to join a variety of GM plant products in the food supply—none of which has produced a single adverse health effect. The FDA staff has concluded that the fish is safe for both humans and the environment. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of carping about “Frankenfood” from the usual quarters, and critics are demanding package labels to warn consumers that the fish is a product of bioengineering.
That’s contrary to FDA practice, however. The agency currently prohibits labeling based solely on the means of production. Only products that are “materially different” than the non-altered variety are required to carry a label. That’s based on the notion that a label distinguishing between GM and non-GM products would be perceived as a “warning” that bioengineering is not as safe as conventional breeding methods.
Proponents of labeling contend that the lack of a label violates a consumer’s “right” not to purchase transgenic food. Indeed, there’s no shortage of folks who are captive to the fear-mongering of biotech’s enemies.
The solution is obvious. Rather than force labeling on the AquAdvantage salmon (or any other product of bioengineering), the food industry ought to be free to advertise to customers—by label or any other means—how their product is produced. Food manufacturers will soon discover whether a label hurts or hinders sales. Ultimately, consumers will drive labeling decisions, which is only rational given that they are the targets.
The crux of the problem, of course, is the FDA’s excessive control of labeling. What consumers infer by the presence or absence of a label should not be the purview of the federal government. It’s one thing for the FDA to protect consumers from fraud, but it’s quite another to dictate whether true claims can or cannot appear on packaging.
As it is, Americans are besieged by a record number of regulations that cost the economy tens of billions of dollars—and erode both free enterprise and individual liberty. It’s long past time that food manufacturers are allowed to label their products according to consumer preference rather than bureaucratic whim. As Lao Tzu advises: “Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish: Don’t overdo it.”