ABC's Avila Launches Another Fishy Food Attack

Dinner at Jim Avila’s house must be a real party – that is, if Avila himself believes his hysterical food scaremongering. The ABC senior national correspondent has launched job-killing attacks against the beef industry and the poultry industry, and now he’s having a go at the fish.

Avila’s latest bogie-food is a new breed of salmon he worries could cause cancer, and he’s going after the company aspiring to market it. But, as usual with Avila’s reporting, something seems fishy.

Avila’s shark attacks appeared on ABC’s Nightline and World News on December 4.

The salmon, the brainchild of the multinational biotech company AquaBounty, have been modified to reach their full size more quickly than wild salmon. This is accomplished by adding a gene from another type of salmon and one from a type of eel. The fish are kept in a secure environment described by both Avila and Aquabounty as “Fort Knox,” in order to prevent them from escaping into the wild. The salmon are also sterilized, as added protection against them contaminating the existing wild salmon population. The company is currently waiting for FDA approval.

The modified fish do not grow bigger than other salmon, but they grow faster. “A normal-size 1-year-old Atlantic salmon averages 10 inches long, while the genetically modified fish at the same age is more than two times larger, coming in at 24 inches.”

“But is it safe to eat?” Diane Sawyer asked on the December 4 edition of World News, with her best deep concern-face. “Our Jim Avila traveled to a hidden site in Panama to uncover the secrets of this ‘super fish.’”

Avilabegan his attack on AquaBounty in almost the exact same way that he began his attack last March on Beef Product Inc. (BPI)’s “Lean Finely Textured Beef,” stating that “critics” call the salmon “frankenfish.” While not as compelling as “pink slime,” – the name he incessantly used for BPI’s product – the mad-scientist reference was clear. For those viewers insufficiently frightened by salmon monsters, Avila conjured dinosaurs, repeatedly alluding to the Jurassic Park franchise.

Our intrepid correspondent was nearly breathless relating the sinister seafood plot. “Deep in the rain forests of Panama, in a secret location behind padlocked gates, barbed-wire fences and over a rickety wooden bridge,” he said “grows what could be the most debated food product of our time.” Or it will be if Jim Avila has anything to do with it.

Cynthia McFadden, introducing Avila on Nightline, called the fish a “highly controversial food,” a “breed of fish created by humans, capable of growing three times as fast as Mother Nature’s model.”

What’s so “controversial?” Ron Stotish, the president and CEO of “AquaBounty,” told Avila that the fish differ from other Atlantic salmon only by “a single gene,” and that they are "identical to traditional salmon in every measurable way."

Although the FDA has yet to officially approve the fish for consumption, they have said that it is “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic Salmon.”

But FDA approval has never stopped Avila before, and it won’t this time. He plunged ahead with his contention that eating the salmon could potentially be fatal.

While “there is no proven link between genetically altered food and health problems,” he said, critics “worry, but have no proof, that this new fish will increase allergies, and they theorize that its altered hormone system could somehow cause cancer.”

Who are these critics? Avila didn’t say, and he admitted that the “FDA’s review of company data found those concerns unfounded.” But as Avila’s proved in the past, merely speculating whether a food is unhealthy can be enough to damage a company and extinguish jobs.

True to form, Diane Sawyer asked Avila if this new type of fish will be labeled as being genetically altered when it’s sold in supermarkets. Avila, very somberly, responded that there would be no way to tell it apart from regular salmon. During the attack against BPI, Avila went to supermarkets and asked if their ground beef contained “pink slime,” and if they would label it as such, until most supermarkets pulled the product from their shelves for fear of losing customers.

Avilaagain discredited the FDA approval of the salmon, citing the doubts of “critics,” but again failing to even hint as to who these critics were.

ABC’s attack against BPI resulted in the loss of over 2,000 jobs, according to a $1.2 billion lawsuit filed by BPI against ABC.

The suit is based on ABC stories that began March 7 and depicted lean beef manufactured by BPI as “pink slime,” a term used by an activist and repeatedly cited by the network. The suit claims the term “pink slime” was used 137 times by the network and used as a synonym for the beef. “There is not a more offensive way of describing a food product than to call it ‘slime,’ which is a noxious, repulsive and filthy fluid not safe for human consumption,” the suit claims.

Those ABC stories went on for nearly two months, causing retailers to drop the product. The suit alleges that “ABC sought to interfere and damage BPI’s business relationships with grocery and ground beef processors.” BPI shut down three plants and 650 workers lost their jobs because of a decline in demand for the product.

Two recent examinations of the beef industry showed the devastating impact of the fight over lean finely textured beef. According to an analysis by two Iowa State University economics professors, that controversy cost at least $573 million dollars.

BPI is charging ABC with “defamation, product and food disparagement, tortious interference with business relationships, and other wrongs” in a 263-page complaint. The lawsuit charges the network made “nearly 200 false and disparaging statements regarding BPI and its product, lean finely textured beef.”

Mike Ciandella
Mike Ciandella
Mike Ciandella is a research analyst for the MRC's News Analysis Division