By Heather SomervilleSan Jose Mercury News

In a dramatic sign of the growing wariness about genetically modified food, some of the nation’s largest grocers, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, announced Wednesday they will not sell a type of salmon engineered by a biotech firm.

The announcement comes as the Food and Drug Administration is expected in the coming months to give the go-ahead to the modified salmon, the first such animal approved for widespread human consumption. The announcement is likely to add momentum to the national movement to label or even eliminate genetically modified foods.

“Stores see the writing on the wall — Americans don’t want to touch this fish,” said Eric Hoffman, food and technology policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, the environmental organization collecting the grocery store pledges. “The tipping point is coming soon.”

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Home to a cuisine culture that pioneered the organic food movement, along with a strong environmental consciousness, the San Francisco Bay Area has been a key hub for much of the debate over genetically modified foods. Proposition 37, which proposed labeling genetically modified foods and which received a majority of the vote in most Bay Area counties, ignited the discussion and, despite its failure in the November election, inspired similar proposals in other states.

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But with the exception of Whole Foods, which this month announced it would label all GMO foods by 2018, grocers have up until now been mostly silent on the issue. This announcement could bring enough awareness to the issues, Hoffman said, to force legislative action.

“There’s more energy now than there has been in a long time,” he said.

The fish, a cross of Atlantic and Pacific salmon, is safe to eat and “indistinguishable” from other salmon, according to AquaBounty, the Massachusetts biotech company that is developing it. In December, the FDA concluded that the salmon would not have a significant impact on the environment.

Still, several customers outside the Coleman Avenue Trader Joe’s in San Jose on Tuesday said they were happy to hear the fish would stay out of store freezers.

“It definitely makes me want to shop here,” said Linda Terra of San Jose as her husband, Rod, loaded up their groceries.

The couple tries to eat seafood, especially salmon, at least twice a week.

“I wish everybody would label everything,” Rod Terra said. “What could it hurt?”

Other grocers, like Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and discount grocery chain Aldi, which plans to open stores in California this year, have also pledged not to sell the fish.

The fish has been under review for years and federal approval is expected. But critics say the idea of eating such a GMO animal concerns consumers far more than the common genetically modified foods, such as corn and soybeans.

Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, said consumers have reason to be concerned. The fish poses numerous health and environmental problems, he said, from creating new seafood allergies in people to endangering other salmon if they mix with the wild population. He said they are more sickly than other fish and offer about one-third the nutritional value of wild salmon.

AquaBounty says the fish, called AquAdvantage Salmon, can grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon, meaning it can hit stores and turn profits more quickly.

The FDA has not yet announced whether the salmon would be labeled, but many believe it would not and would be indistinguishable from wild and farm-raised salmon. The fish would probably be sold only as filets, not whole.

“That’s something that we don’t feel comfortable about,” said Kirsten Bourne, marketing director of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco. “People need to know and trust where their food is coming from.”

This article was written by Heather Somerville and published in the San Jose Mercury News on March 20, 2013. Photo by Michael J Klokow/Flickr.

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