Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's the Size That Counts

Back in the 1970s, Monty Python’s Flying Circus had an infamous bit called the Fish Slapping Dance. Two men in military khakis took turns dancing on the edge of a dock and slapping each other in the face with fishes. The first man used a small fish and the second man took out a large one and whacked the first guy off the dock into the water.

For some reason, that skit recently came to mind when I heard about how regular Atlantic salmon might soon be replaced by a much larger genetically engineered (GE) species. Wait a minute, you might say. Salmon are already reasonably sizable fish. Why would you want to develop one that was several times bigger yet?

The answer: So you can knock the other guy off the dock. In this case, the other guy would be commercial fishermen catching wild salmon, regular salmon farmers or anyone trying to compete with a fish that grows to mega-maturity in 16 to 18 months versus the usual 30 months required by Mother Nature’s Atlantic salmon.

So who wants to be the Royal Food Taster for Corporate America? Relax. We are told by the impartial company that hopes to market this big guy that there is no difference between GE salmon and the original version. That is, aside from the fact that the GE version is made by taking the eggs of an Atlantic salmon and fertilizing them with the irradiated sperm of another similar species, Arctic char. The eggs are then pressure-treated to alter the chromosomes, then doused with 17-methyltestosterone so that the resulting females are “neomales” that produce sperm instead of eggs. The Neomales then mate with regular salmon females whose eggs are pressure-treated again to alter their chromosomes. Just as nature intended!

Their phenomenal size comes from a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon joined with DNA from an ocean pout (an eel-like fish). Since the resulting fish grows several times larger than the original salmon in a record amount of time, you can make a lot of money selling these babies.

I imagine there will be a simple test to see if diners are allergic to this new genetic combination. It goes like this: If following ingestion, you become sick or die, then you may be allergic.

The FDA is on the verge of approving the GE salmon. So should we be worried? Well, some groups are opposing that approval because they feel the science supporting the safety of this fish is iffy. Those groups include Food & Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and the Organic Consumers Association.

These unAmerican spoil sports have written to President Obama, urging him to discontinue the approval process for the GE salmon. Why are they belly-aching? Well, during the GE salmon development phase in 2005, the GE fish exhibited an unusually high frequency of physical deformities. Apparently, only 7.9 percent of the final version of the GE salmon were judged to be free of any malformations. If you wanted to be negative about it—shame on you—you might say that 92.1 percent were malformed. Maybe that’s because the version that will land on your plate will have three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two. On the positive side, that means you’re getting more chromosomes for your money, which makes it an outstanding value.

Can you avoid eating this new form of salmon-y goodness? Under current law, labeling is not required to differentiate GE foods. The only labeling you can expect to see on a genetically engineered salmon fillet is country-of-origin labeling, which is required on most (but not all) seafood. Since all of the mega salmon will be produced in Panama, an uncommon location for farmed salmon, you could avoid buying salmon from Panama. Of course, not all fish must be labeled this way. Salmon sold in fish markets and processed salmon, such as smoked salmon, do not require country-of-origin labeling.

Even though you may be perfectly happy with the smaller Atlantic salmon and its genetic makeup, Corporate America is not. So brace yourself to be smacked with some genetically engineered salmon. It soon may be dancing into a supermarket near you!

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