A new Alaskan law requiring a special label for genetically modified fish is on the cutting edge of national efforts to regulate biotechnology in the food chain.
The law was passed primarily to protect the state's fishing industry, which has suffered from the growth of fish farming. Supporters also call it a breakthrough in alerting consumers about what they are eating. While European countries have required labels for all genetically modified foods since 1998, similar proposals have failed in California, Maine, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont over the past decade.
But critics of the new law contend it is a regulation without a cause. "There is no such fish approved yet," said Elliot Entis, who has been trying for more than five years to get federal approval for his specially designed salmon that grow to full size in 18 months instead of the 24 to 30 months that wild salmon require.
Under Alaska's law, which passed this session with unanimous support, a label must inform buyers that a fish or fish product has been genetically altered "by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes." The bill was cast as a way to ward off increased competition from fish farming, which already has cut income from Alaskan salmon fishing in half over the past decade.
"[The bill's passage] is a sign that ... Alaskans stand up for informed consumers and friends and neighbors working in the wild fish industry," said state Sen. Kim Elton (D) , chief sponsor of the legislation.
The Alaska Legislature also passed a resolution this year opposing the Bush administration's proposal to encourage fish-farming in federally controlled waters.
Eight other states -- California, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin -- have laws restricting whether or how genetically engineered fish can be grown or sold within their borders.
"Given the rapid pace of scientific development, it is not unreasonable to believe there will be a [genetically modified fish] in the near future," said Becky Hultberg, a spokeswoman for Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R).
The nonprofit Center for Food Safety hopes the Alaskan law will renew efforts in other states to label genetically modified foods after a number of failed attempts.
A 1994 Vermont law requiring the labeling of milk from cows injected with a genetically modified hormone was struck down by a federal appeals court, which ruled that the label amounted to an unnecessary warning for a product that had been proven safe.
A 2002 ballot initiative in Oregon to require labeling of genetically engineered food got less than 30 percent of the vote. Bills to require labeling of genetically modified foods have failed in California, Maine, Michigan and Vermont in recent years.
Polls have shown that 90 percent of Americans want biotech foods to be labeled, said Tracie Letterman, staff attorney for the Center, which lobbies for greater restrictions on genetically modified foods. "It's only a matter of time before states fill in the regulatory gap. ... Alaska is merely the first," she said.
But Entis, founder and president of a company called Aqua Bounty, said the Alaskan law "has little, if anything, to do with reality" because it does not apply to any current products. Entis is developing his fish in laboratories in Massachusetts and Canada.
The Center for Food Safety estimates that 35 species of genetically modified fish are being developed around the world. However, no genetically modified animals have been approved for human consumption in the United States, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration. The FDA regulates bioengineered animals under the same rules it uses for new drugs and said it is not allowed to reveal whether applications for genetically modified animals have been submitted.
But consumers already are eating genetically modified foods in a number of foods they buy from the grocery store, Entis said.
Eighty percent of the soybeans and 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States are genetically modified to resist pests or tolerate herbicides, according to the Department of Crop Sciences at Colorado State University. The True Food Network, a branch of the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace, lists hundreds of common grocery products containing genetically modified canola seeds, corn or soybeans -- from baby teething biscuits to canned soups. Genetically modified papayas also are sold in the United States.
Genetically engineered varieties of tomatoes, potatoes and flax were largely rejected by consumers or growers and no longer are being produced in the country, according to the researchers at Colorado State University.