By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- A University of California animal scientist cautioned Oregon lawmakers about adopting bills that would ban the sale and production of genetically engineered fish in the state.
In a hearing before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Alison Van Eenennaan, a UC-Davis Cooperative Extension scientist, said the technology to genetically engineer fish can help satisfy the world's fish consumption needs and reduce pressure on wild caught fish.
"As a scientist and someone that is interested in food production, I am concerned here that we have a bill that is going to basically ban genetically engineered fish," Van Eenennaan said.
"Aquaculture is going to be required in order to be able to fill the need we have for fish products in the future," she said.
In the March 21 hearing, the committee heard testimony on four bills seeking to regulate and label genetically engineered food and fish.
* House Bill 2530 prohibits importation of GE fish into Oregon for consumption or production.
* House Bill 3177 requires sellers of GE fish to label that the fish has been genetically modified.
* And House bills 2175 and 2532 require labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients.
Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, who sponsored HB2530 and HB2532, said the GE fish bills are needed to protect Oregon's native salmon population from the potential transmission of diseases from GE salmon.
"In light of recent developments across the country and the world on genetically engineered fish, and the proliferation of the aquaculture industry potentially using these fish causes great concern to the state of Oregon and Pacific salmon," Holvey said.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve production of GE fish. It recently extended the public comment period to April 26 on a proposal to produce GE Atlantic salmon in an enclosed system.
Holvey said he is concerned that if the FDA approves proposal, the salmon could escape into the wild and spread diseases and reduce the population of native Pacific salmon.
"They grow fast. They grow large. And they are aggressive, and they can outcompete for habitat," Holvey said of the GE fish. "This is too big a risk for us to take to watch the native species of Pacific salmon potentially get decimated."
Van Eenennaan said, however, that science shows Atlantic salmon do not adapt well in non-native environments, and, she said, the Atlantic and Pacific salmon are not genetically compatible, so won't produce offspring.
Also, she said, the proposal before the FDA to approve the AquAdvantage salmon specifies that the fish be produced only in an FDA inspected facility and be sterile.
"Arbitrarily banning production technologies can have unanticipated effects in terms of forestalling future applications that might be highly beneficial and well aligned with food safety and security goals," Van Eenennaan said.
Van Eenennaan also spoke against the bills to label genetically engineered fish and food, saying the labels could create a misperception that the food is somehow unsafe.
"I think it is likely that if I see a mandatory sign that says genetically engineered, and I'm the general public, I'm going to perceive that as some sort of warning signal that there is something inherently unsafe about that particular product," she said.
"The labeling of GE is not a food safety issue," she said. "The World Health Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, more than 300 independent studies on the health and safety of GE foods have reached the same determination that foods made using GE ingredients are safe and, in fact, are substantially equivalent to conventional alternatives."
Portland attorney John DiLorenzo also said that the labeling bills violate the First Amendment.
"Federal courts have consistently held that food labeling laws in states may not differ significantly from federal laws," DiLorenzo said.
Holvey said he introduced the food labeling bill because he believes consumers have a right to know if they are eating genetically modified ingredients.
The committee took no action on the bills.