Should Genetically Modified Salmon Be Labeled?

The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to approve genetically modified salmon for human consumption.  Aquabounty Technologies has submitted its “AquAdvantage” salmon, an Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to mature faster than wild salmon, for FDA approval.  Thus far, things look good for Aquabounty, as the FDA’s staff review concluded that AquAdvantage salmon are as safe to eat as other Atlantic salmon.  Further, the staff found “no biologically relevant difference” between the fish.

If the FDA approves AquAdvantage, it is unlikely that the FDA will require that AquAdvantage be labeled as genetically modified.  Indeed, the FDA may lack authority to require such a label.  As the Washington Post reports, if the FDA concludes that AquAdvantage salmon are not materially different than other salmon, there is no basis to mandate disclosure, as failure to label the fish does not mislead the consumer.  Failure to disclose how a product is made — in this case, that an eel gene was inserted in the salmon to make it grow faster — is not misleading to consumers.  Under existing law, so long as the genetically engineered salmon is not materially different than other salmon, the fact that it was genetically engineered is no more relevant than what it was fed, the size of its pen (assuming farm-raised salmon), or how it was killed.  Producers are free to disclose such process characteristics, but the FDA will not mandate it.

Would the FDA’s failure to mandate the labeling of AquAdvantage salmon be a problem?  I think not.  It is one thing to require producers to label their products so that consumers are aware of potentially harmful characteristics.  It is quite another to force a producer to label a product to disclose a non-material fact about the product that some consumers may dislike, such as how it was produced.  The former is disclosure for consumer protection; the latter approaches forced stigmatization.  If, as the FDA apparently believes, the genetically engineered salmon is just as safe, healthful, etc. as other salmon, what basis is there for requiring a label?  If the government mandates a label, it is sending the message that a particular product characteristic is particularly important and should matter to consumers more than others.  It’s a non-so-subtle suggestion that something may be wrong.  Indeed, why else would there be a label?

Mandatory product labels typically provide consumers with information necessary for them to protect themselves from otherwise unknown product characteristics (as well as to identify and contact the producer).  Forcing candy makers to disclose the presence of peanuts protects those with allergies.  Nutritional content labels protect those with particular dietary needs.  Product safety labels can protect those who might be unaware of the danger a specific product may pose, and so on.  In such cases, the failure to label can leave consumers exposed to risks about which they were unaware.  In this case, however, the FDA has concluded there is no such risk, so this traditional labeling rationale is absent.

If consumers really care whether or not their salmon was genetically engineered — and I suspect some do — competing salmon producers have ample incentive to label their products as “natural” or “non-genetically engineered.”  Sellers of wild, non-farm-raised salmon are not shy in promoting this fact about their product.  Organic labeling has proliferated without forcing “conventional” food producers to label their products as such.  Why is this any different?  If the non-use of modern genetic modification techniques is that important to consumers, the information will out, label mandate or not.

That some consumers may want to know about how a product was produced should not, by itself, be sufficient for mandatory labeling.  Consumers may want to know all sorts of things about how products are made, or who made them, but we typically let the market provide such information.  Some consumers care about whether their clothes were made by unionized workers or poor children in developing nations.  Some want to know whether their food is organic, kosher, or produced humanely.  Still others may care whether a company’s executives support particular politicians or specific policies. (Just ask John Mackey.)  In all such cases, so long as there is no material difference in the product that could adversely effect the consumer, we leave the disclosure of such things to the private marketplace.  Why should genetically modified salmon be any different?