Local restaurants join ban of biotechnology seafood

Paul Ellas The Associated Press
Thursday September 19, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, Washington, D.C.’s Citronelle, New York’s Babbo and Whole Foods Market were among 200 restaurants, grocers and seafood distributors that pledged Wednesday not to buy, serve or sell fish created by biotechnology. 

“Scientists and corporations are playing with genetics without knowing the consequences,” said Eric Ripert, executive chef of New York restaurant Le Bernadin. 

The Food and Drug Administration is considering an application to market Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as salmon raised on “fish farms.” An FDA decision on the application isn’t expected for more than two years, since the company still needs to conduct environmental safety tests. 

An FDA-commissioned study issued last month by top scientists concluded that engineered fish pose significant environmental issues if they are released into the wild and breed with native species. 

The fish pledge was organized by three anti-biotechnology groups: Center for Food Safety, Clean Water Action and Friends of the Earth. Pledge signers include such celebrity chefs as Thomas Keller of Yountville’s French Laundry and David Pasternack of New York’s Esca. A dozen Alaskan seafood distributors and two dozen organic-food oriented grocery stores and chains signed the pledge. 

Many West Coast fisheries and environmental groups that depend on wild salmon catches also oppose biotechnology fish. They unsuccessfully asked California regulators last month to temporarily ban fish farmers from introducing genetically engineered fish into public waterways. 

Officials with the California Fish and Game Department said a de facto ban is already in place while they wait for environmental questions to be definitively answered. 

The anti-biotechnology groups and pledge signers, citing the FDA-commissioned study, said they also are concerned with the environmental threat biotechnology fish might pose to wild species. 

Executives with Aqua Bounty Farms of Waltham, Mass., which is developing the engineered salmon, said they weren’t surprised by the pledge or any of its signers. 

Aqua Bounty vice president Joseph McGonigle said the boycotters are “celebrity chefs and niche grocers. I see no serious seafood wholesalers on the list.” 

McGonigle said the attacks on Aqua Bounty’s engineered salmon are unfair because the company’s environmental studies have not been completed, making definitive conclusions impossible. 

“What’s disappointing is that their objective here is to avoid finding out the facts,” McGonigle said. “This is tantamount to prior restraint.” 

Aqua Bounty is developing an Atlantic salmon spliced with genes taken from Chinook salmon and the ocean pout, which enable the engineered fish to produce growth hormones year-round instead of just the summer months.