No, You Are Not Eating Frankenfish

His restaurants don't label the food he sells you

His restaurants don’t label the food he sells you

Tom Colicchio, of Top Chef fame, wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled “Are You Eating Frankenfish?”   His lack of understanding biology is glaring.

His article about Frankenfish refers to the  FDA approved salmon (see my blog about the Genetically Modified Salmon Approved By FDA).

Now if Colicchio had tasted the salmon and found the salmon deficient in taste, or the ability to prepare it- then he would have my attention. Right now he is a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is.

In the article Colicchio is talking about genetic engineering and the effect of genetic engineering, as he sees it. The Top Chef judge fails to enlighten the audience about genetic engineering,  but repeats falsehoods about the process. 

Genetically Modified Salmon

He write how the salmon was made with an “antifreeze” gene.  That sounds bad- who wants to eat antifreeze? Except, it isn’t  antifreeze  like the kind you have in your automobile. Does Colicchio deliberately intend to mislead the readers of the New York Times or is he ignorant? It is a protein that Pacific salmon naturally have allowing them to survive in the colder waters of the Pacific Ocean.  Placing that gene in Atlantic salmon would be like mating the two salmon and trying to select for this property. You eat that “antifreeze” type of protein anytime you eat Wild Alaskan Salmon (you know, the wild salmon many East Coast restaurants want you to think you are eating when you are served farm-raised salmon). The anti-freeze proteins found in Pacific salmon, and other Northern fish, have been isolated and will be used to store blood platelets (one of the clotting factors blood banks use). That one single use of genetically modified material puts to rest Colicchio’s arguments about the lack of merit found in GMO -but wait, there is more.

When you read his article you get the impression that some bottom feeding fish is also a part of the food you would be eating:  but  it is the use of a genetic promoter to allow the Atlantic salmon to grow more.  He leaves out the scientific fact that the consumer will be eating pure salmon (he probably doesn’t know this). In other words, the gene that allows salmon to grow will be turned on, so these salmon will grow larger and faster.  If this salmon were bred this way I wonder if he would have doubts? Does Colicchio understand the genetics of breeding?

What about the environmental impact of these fish? Colicchio states that if these fish “escape” they will be a danger to native fish. This has nothing to do with genetic engineering. The long-disproven argument that Atlantic farm raised salmon would out-compete native  fish and we would lose native fish.  Atlantic salmon could not be introduced into British Columbia when the government tried in the early 1900’s. In addition, with the many fish farms in British Columbia there have been escaped fish, but none have been able to out-compete or have ever taken over the environment. He also neglects to mention that these salmon will be raised in contained units – not in a pen – meaning if they escape the salmon will be on dry land, not in an ocean or river.

Colicchio talks about how farm salmon are raised with antibiotics, and that these new GMO salmon will be raised in the same manner. This is simply untrue. Farmed salmon are raised with the same standards as the beef he serves, if the animals need antibiotics they get them. The practice of routinely providing antibiotics for farm salmon has been abandoned years ago. In fact, most farm-raised salmon would fall into his “antibiotic free” food he serves at his restaurant.

Colicchio intimates that environmental damage of farm-raised fish (the kind he serves) – but clearly has never seen a salmon run – where a large biomass of salmon go home to spawn every year. The biomass of large pens of salmon can cause environmental damage, but so can a run of wild salmon, which do cause problems every year.

Colicchio says “But there’s the rub. This new engineered fish could be marketed as … Atlantic salmon. There might be no way for consumers to identify it as genetically engineered.”- and yet, in his menu, you have no idea what the salmon is that he sells, or where it was raised. A restaurant is the perfect place to label food, and yet he doesn’t even follow the basic guidelines of nutritional information about the food he serves. By the way – the salmon would be an Atlantic salmon – just one that grows faster. In other words - if you were to examine a salmon filet from the genetically modified salmon versus a standard Atlantic salmon there would be no difference, none at all. 

Colicchio is proud of the food he serves in his restaurants. He tells you the places where he purchases some of his food. But unless he is charging you more for the food, he won’t do any labeling of the food he serves. In fact, he recently proposed some labeling to Congress that would exempt restaurants. While he wants food labeled he does not label the food he serves.

The Elite Food Movement Is Unaffordable

There’s an increasing elite food movement that states we should be eating “slow” foods or “whole” foods, and that to eat anything else, is an abomination. Many of these foods, like the ones Colicchio chooses to serve, are ‘stopped in time.’ These foods are also very expensive, and not foods that can be afforded by most Americans, except as an occasional treat.

Consider that many of the products he serves such as  Kale,  the domestic cattle, and corn have been genetically modified, changed by man over the last 10,000 years. Now apparently Colicchio will call the science humans have used to genetically modify foods which has included cross breeding, hybridization, irradiation of foods, but leave out genetic engineering and call it ‘good.’ Colicchio is like the Amish of food, he wants to stop food in time now, where he assumes he understands the product. Like the Amish who refuse to add a zipper because it is ‘new fangled’.

In his article Colicchio ignores 15 years of animals being fed genetically modified crops (which includes the food he serves in his restaurants) as well as hundreds of peer reviewed studies showing safety. Is there a single study that shows consuming non-GMO foods is better? Is there a scientific consensus that shows eating organic food is better? There is a marketing advantage to non-GMO foods that would be gained by a label, a marketing advantage by implying GMO foods are somehow different than others. In fact, there is no difference.

Chef Tom Colicchio’s arguments stem from the premise that there is something wrong with GMO foods, and should require labels to warn consumers. He presents this under the false illusion of consumers should have  a choice. A label is something we use to convey information of importance to the consumer, such as how much salt is used, what micronutrients are in the product – and information important to the health of the consumer. That is an informed choice a consumer should have. He fails to tell you what the difference is between a genetically modified salmon and regular salmon – because he clearly doesn’t know.

What is infuriating is his editorial is little more than a commercial for the food he serves in his restaurants. Expensive food that is not raised to feed the majority of Americans, but sold by purveyors whose market is the upper class.

From  Colicchio’s restaurants menu you can find an “American wagyu” steak, that he charges you $108 for a NY Strip version of it.  Wagyu  is an attempt to fool the consumer that they are getting something similar to the Kobe beef from Japan. It is nowhere close. (Forbes listed this type of beef as one of the great rip-offs.) To quote from them: “As a result, “domestic Wagyu” remains very much a case of buyer beware and unless you know the farmer, really trust your beef retailer, or experiment extensively it is very difficult to know what you are buying. ” That disclaimer is not found in Colicchio’s menu or website. Instead “wagyu” is some unnamed cattle which was made from beef that was genetically modified (bred from Japanese stock and then with American stock) and fed genetically modified corn, and for part of its life raised on a pasture and fed some grass all to convince the wealthy patron that they are eating food with integrity (sounds like Chipotle for the wealthy).

Here’s more food for thought: the salmon found on Colicchio’s menu, like the Waygu beef, is not labeled. A restaurant patron will not know if the $36 they pay for the piece of salmon is from a wild salmon or farm raised (for that price it is not from Alaska). Based on his well known opinion you’d assume the salmon he sells is the wild Alaskan salmon – caught in the Copper River one day, flown down to New York, and hand delivered to his restaurant for his patrons to eat. More than 90% of salmon sold in the United States is farm-raised, and many NY restaurants try to pass of farm-raised salmon as wild salmon from Alaska.  I wonder what Colicchio sells – we don’t know because it isn’t labeled.

You would think that the salmon from his restaurants must be caught, flown in and brought down the red carpet for the patrons to consume.

You would think that the salmon from his restaurants must be caught, flown in and brought down the red carpet for the patrons to consume.

Colicchio goes to great pretense to name the suppliers of his food on his menu and websites, that he is happy to tell his patrons he has vetted for you. In other words, Colicchio wants you to trust him, but not the FDA and science.

Imagine a salmon that has no new proteins in it, but can grow faster and come to market faster and be less expensive. The salmon will probably cost consumers around $2 a pound, be less expensive than his charge of around $100 a pound of salmon of dubious origins.

Let’s go through his arguments:

He starts out by stating that nine out of ten Americans want GMO disclosure on food packages. This is a logical fallacy of an appeal to popularity. Labeling is not something that should be done based on popular appeal, rather based on the ingredients in the product, and what is a nutrient of concern. He does not identify any nutrient of concern.  If something has to have a label, it often means that there is something ‘wrong’ or different. The FDA is clear about why a food should be labeled:

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA can only require additional labeling of foods derived from GE sources if there is a material difference – such as a different nutritional profile – between the GE product and its non-GE counterpart. In the case of the AquAdvantage Salmon, the FDA did not find any such differences.

He also points out that grocery companies have spent “millions in recent years to lobby against transparency..”  This is another logical fallacy – an ad hominem attack. His argument is that consumers should be able to make their own choice. That seems reasonable except, again – the label generally indicates there is something to worry about and he has yet to identify the specific problem. Is there something in the GMO salmon to worry about? Does the GMO salmon cook differently or have different nutrient properties? It does not. His article would have been powerful if he said “I ate it, I made it, and the fish isn’t anywhere near as tasty as the fish I serve.”

When Colicchio says that the use of GMO’s has had “unintended consequences” such as the rise of “super weeds.”  Colicchio blames super weeds on GMO crops, which is simply untrue-  super weeds happen as a result of natural selection, not as an unintended consequence of GMO. Weeds are competitors for soil nutrients, and to eliminate weeds man has been using herbicides.   Weeds evolve to resist all weed killers. The hope of GMO is to produce crops upon which we can use more of the least toxic herbicide. The weeds are always going to be with us- and there has yet to be a completely “safe” herbicide for mass produced foods of any kind.

Colicchio is referring to GMO plants that have the genetic ability to withstand Round-UP. The idea is you can put a lot of Round-Up on the corn, and other weeds will die. Round-Up has been found by the WHO to “possibly” cause cancer – however, the alternative weed killers  – every single one, have been proven to have far more toxicity, and are carcinogenic not “possibly.” Does Colicchio instead wish crops to use the more toxic herbicides – and if so should those be labeled?

He then goes on to state that GMO crops have not provided clear benefit. He neglects to mention the total amount of weed killers and pesticides used in the mid-west have decreased since the introduction of genetically engineered crops.

Colicchio neglected to mention that the genetically modified rice, called  Golden Rice ,can prevent blindness that affects half a million kids in south east Asia. This rice can save a quarter million lives, and prevent small children from dying a horrible death. But the anti-science, anti-GMO crowd has kept this rice from these kids.  Colicchio now falls in that camp, keeping a crop away from children who will suffer blindness and a miserable death.

Colicchio neglects to mention drought resistant crops allowing more yield because of GMO. He says that GMO’s create “a spiral of ever-increasing toxicity in our environment.” Again – no scientific proof, and in fact just the opposite.

Why Not Label?

It seems like a reasonable argument, but a label implies there is something wrong with the food – which there is not. On the other hand, if people want to avoid GMO they should buy “organic” which is GMO free, and by their “standards.”  Placing a label on foods provides a false choice, and an unnecessary warning. It provides a pure marketing advantage to other foods without a single study showing there is an advantage to organic or non GMO foods.

By keeping up this non-scientific approach has allowed children in SE Asia and the rest of the world to starve. But it does allow people who sell foods that have no advantage to continue to sell you high priced foods.

The choice of a label is one that is against less expensive food and in favor of the food for the wealthy.

If the new salmon tasted worse – I’d be interested. If it is just a larger bit of salmon – well, I have caught plenty of those and they are delicious.

Food For All

Colicchio serves food to wealthy Americans, that is what his restaurants are based upon. Upscale food – with the impression that this food is has some integrity.  In spite of not labeling the food, not providing nutritional information, misleading people to buy $108 NY Strip “wagu” steak.

His editorial motivations are suspect. Not to mention, his lack of science education and critical thinking prove what was once asked of him by Wall Street Journal writer Julie Kelly: “So, Tom, with all due respect, please stick to your pots and pans. You actually have something to offer. If you want to advance the food movement, educate people on how to cook food. Period. And leave the proselytizing to the politicians.” 

In this case – Tom, with all due respect,  if you want to advance the true food movement learn something about science and biology. There is nothing wrong with the salmon that the FDA approved – except it will cost less, come to market sooner, and be raised in a manner that protects the environment more than 90% of the salmon served in the United States.

Years ago when the Food Network was launched restauranteurs discovered if they could get attention of the Food Network their restaurants would fill up with patrons. Now the Top Chef judge is using that effect to advertise the food he sells. Of course – who could blame him for wanting to support labeling food but  exempt his restaurant from labeling the food he serves.


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Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, a renowned weight loss surgeon, is a leading advocate of culinary medicine. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit