Friday, August 29, 2014

State representative Bill Witt reports that his Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee saw a great deal of participation at hearings last week largely because the subject matter dealing with genetically engineered (GE) salmon is both timely and controversial. Witt says Four bills have been introduced:  HB 2175, HB2532, HB 3177 and HB 2530, one of which pertains to genetically modified foods in general, but the other three focus on how this practice might affect the salmon industry in Oregon.   These bills range in scope from mere labeling to an outright ban of any product with a genetically engineered component. Understandably, we are extremely protective of our wild salmon and any threat to this iconic creature would endanger a major industry within our northwest economy.

The Committee posed many questions to those who came to testify:  Is there a scientific justification to limit either the production and/or labeling of genetically engineered fish?  Can we legally ban a product on the basis of anything other than food safety?  Is aqua-culture (raising fish within a self-contained water system) environmentally and biologically safe?  Here are some pros and cons as we heard them:

Opponents to genetically modified fish:

Growth in GM fish is of great concern to the fishing industry and the tribes who depend upon this economy.  Escapement of Atlantic salmon could contaminate our native fish population. Larger engineered fish could be an aggressive competitor for habitat.  Consumers deserve to know where their food is grown and under what conditions 

Proponents of genetically modified fish:

Bills banning GM fish are not necessary because they will not be grown in Oregon but in self-contained structures in PanamaGM fish will enable us to increase the food supply, increase efficiency and decrease the pressure on the wild fish industryThere is no threat to Pacific Salmon from Atlantic Salmon as they are a different genus and therefore incapable of interbreeding.  The FDA does not require separate labeling because studies have shown that there is no substantial difference

During this hearing we heard from Dr. Allison VanEenennaam who tried to help us sort fact from fiction.  She is a geneticist from UC Davis, specializing in Animal Biotechnology and Genomics.  We also heard from John DiLorenzo, with Oregonians for Food and Shelter.  He cautioned us regarding imposing labels on genetically engineered foods based on three provisions in the Constitution:

1. The First Amendment:  Speech (in this case, labeling) can neither be restricted nor compelled.  Furthermore, consumer curiosity and consumer interest are not sufficient to compel speech.
2. Supremacy Clause:  Bills requiring labeling are preempted by federal law because the FDA has jurisdiction over these matters.
3. The Commerce Clause:  A complete ban on GE foods would impose an undue burden on interstate commerce
4. The Hawaii Attorney General recently issued an opinion that found similar labeling and importing restrictions unconstitutional based on previous points 1-3

After hearing the testimony, the Committee decided to consult our own Legislative Counsel, to determine the constitutionality of these measures.  We will decide the merits of these bills once we have had time to consider all the facts.

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