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Bioethicist: 'Frankenfish' far less scary than fast food

Two big events recently took place in the world of food: The Food and Drug Administration decreed that genetically engineered salmon wouldn't harm the environment and McDonald’s announced that its McRib sandwich is back on the menu.

The FDA’s announcement paves the way for the first approval of a genetically engineered animal for humans to eat – and it was met with a good deal of highly critical wailing and groaning by Consumer’s Union, National Geographic and many other advocacy groups who are wary of genetically engineered food.

The McRib’s return was greeted with a few snickers by late night comedians and overwhelmingly happy faces on the millions of Americans who eat at one of the 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants from Maine to Hawaii every day. This, as my grandmother would have said in Yiddish, is “fakakta”—completely screwy.

If you like salmon, and I do, should you worry much about the safety of eating genetically engineered salmon?  No. The FDA said it could not find any valid scientific reason to prohibit the sale of the fish.

If you like the McRib, and I do, should you worry a lot about eating it?  Oh yeah.

The genetically altered “AquAdvantage”’ salmon is Atlantic salmon made from an egg, which has been injected with a gene from a Chinook salmon. That gene, which is stuck to a bit of DNA from another fish—the ocean pout, carries instructions for making more growth hormone than an Atlantic salmon ordinarily makes. More growth hormone means faster growth and, thus, more salmon to eat much more quickly.

This genetic concoction was first used in 1989, to create a “founder” genetically modified (GM) salmon.  The GM salmon is now in its tenth generation. Many people have eaten it.  No nasty side-effects have been observed.

Now consider the McRib sandwich. There is no rib in a McRib. The sandwich features a “McRib pork patty,” contains 980 milligrams of sodium, 26 grams of fat and 23 milligrams of cholesterol. Ingredients listed on the McDonald's website for the McRib’s bun include azodicarbonamide, a flour bleaching agent used in breads at some U.S. fast food restaurants – and also in the making of foamed plastics. It’s banned as a food additive in some countries.

It is time for some straight talk when it comes to genetically engineered foods. Americans are offered a mountain of jumbo-sized salty, fatty food every day. These foods are killing and disabling them at a very high rate. Making more salmon more cheaply is a far better option than ignoring the crap that too many people are currently eating every day. 

Those who claim to be worried about what we eat should worry a lot less about people eating more genetically engineered salmon and a whole lot more about the number of Americans who eat fast food daily. Those who care about public health should not target bigger fish but the drive-thru.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.