Genetically modified fish or lack of statistical sense: which is scarier?

So I’m a statistician. It is my profession, and it is also the framework in which I view the world (which is why it is my profession). And so I read blogs about statistics. I was reading the very awesome Numbers Rule Your World, and lo and behold, Kaiser is talking about an article that appeared in the Washington Post a week ago. The subject? The recent FDA ruling that genetically  modified salmon is not “materially different” from natural (ie. genetically unsullied) salmon. WTF does THAT mean? Their GENES are different, no?

FDA scientists are putting forth that according to their standards (that are not documented anywhere I can see), GM and non-GM salmon are indistinguishable.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/18/AR2010091803520.html?hpid=topnews

The statistical side to this question is whether or not it is possible to prove that two things are identical. We often show that things are not significantly different, but that is quite a different thing than stating that they are exactly the same.

In the case of freaky fish, it is quite reasonable to assume that in certain metrics, GM and non-GM salmon are indistinguishable (they might have the same colour or fat content or density). However, we can only make these conclusions about quantities we’re actually measuring. As of yet, we have no idea what possible long-term effects eating GM fish (or other GM food) is. Because we haven’t measured them.

Statistical quandries aside, I’ll be watching with great interest to see what the future holds for both genetically modified foods, and for food labelling in general. GM foods kinda give me the creeps. Perhaps they are totally inocuous and could help solve some of our food supply issues. Maybe they’ll crawl up in our cells and start messing with our DNA. I don’t know… and I’m not sure anybody else knows what the long-term effects will be.

So into the box goes the article, along with a lot of questions about what we’ll be eating when I read it again in 30 years!

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One comment

  1. Barb C.

    Ah, the smell of frankenfood on the BBQ! I guess that the FDA is not materially different from “liar” or “obfuscator”. Go get those pesky dissimulators, Maria!

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