GMO: friend or foe for pet food?

Foods sold in the US for human consumption are not required to be labeled as containing genetically engineered components. Neither are pet foods.

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Did you hear the news about genetically engineered salmon? Just this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved these genetically altered fish for human consumption.

The process was long for AquaBounty Technologies, the company that created this fish using a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout that works to keep the growth hormone gene active all of the time, instead of only during certain parts of the year. This shortens the period for growth to market size from 28-36 months down to 18-20 months. AquaBounty Technologies first approached FDA in the early 1990s, and the agency offered a preliminary decision that the fish was safe for consumption about five years ago.

On FDA’s website announcing its decision, the agency states, “After an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, FDA has arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.”

So now the argument begins. Lawsuits have already been threatened and opponents have raised concerns, from the impact on the environment if these fish escaped to health concerns related to the consumption of a GE food source. From the Center for Food Safety’s website: “The fallout from this decision will have enormous impact on the environment. Center for Food Safety has no choice but to file suit to stop the introduction of this dangerous contaminant,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director. “FDA has neglected its responsibility to protect the public.”

Of course it will be some time before these fish even make it to our plates. The company has farms in Canada raising the eggs and in Panama raising the fish themselves. Export concerns, particularly for the Panamanian fish, may put the brakes on this even more. And currently, the company does not have the capacity to even meet more than a small portion of the demand for salmon in the US.

Genetic modification of our food is something that stirs passion from both sides of the argument. Scientists, politicians and, of course, consumers have strong opinions both for and against this technology.

At this time, foods sold in the US for human consumption are not required to be labeled as containing genetically engineered components. Obviously, neither are pet foods.

The Non-GMO Project was created back in 2005 to address this issue. In 2010, this organization first began verifying products, and the roster of verified products now is up to more than 34,000. As explained by Megan Westgate, the executive director of the Non-GMO Project, to Milling & Baking News, there is a 0.9% testing threshold for genetically modified organisms in products. There is not currently a test that can verify “zero” or “free” status of GMO, making the “GMO free” claim indefensible and non-compliant from a regulatory standpoint.

Interestingly, certified organic products, regulated by the National Organic Program, are prohibited from containing GM ingredients. However, testing is not required, so the Non-GMO Project offers another layer of certification, even for organic foods.

FDA currently has two draft guidance documents available for public comment for the next 60 days (beginning November 23). These guidance documents pertain to voluntary labeling for foods derived from GE salmon and plants.

Pet food is manufactured from commodity ingredients that often are by-products of the human food industry. Verifying the status of every incoming ingredient as genetically modified or not would be a costly endeavor. While some companies have gone this route, many have not. It will be interesting to watch the public comments on labeling recommendations for human food and how this might trickle down into pet food.

Consumers drive many decisions for pet food, largely based on humanization. Consumer demand for GMO verification in the pet food space may drive more companies to participate in the program. Of course, costs must be passed along or absorbed. Is the consumer willing to pay more for a Non-GMO Project Verified pet food? Or will the consumer simply demand that they are owed this information as part of transparency? Will companies be able to respond that they do their best to source non-GMO ingredients? Or will they be forced to take the extra steps to verify their ingredients and products?

There are many unanswered questions surrounding GMOs in human food and pet food, and this will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.




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