FDA OK’s engineered salmon; lawmakers seek mandatory labels

Photo: AquaBounty Technologies
Photo: AquaBounty Technologies

It’s the announcement the Alaskan salmon industry has long feared: The FDA this morning approved an application for genetically engineered salmon, declaring the product as safe to eat as natural salmon. Critics, including Alaska’s congressional delegation, are considering their next steps.

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It’s primarily an Atlantic salmon, but it has genes from a Chinook and a bottom-dweller to make it grow extra fast on less food. It’s called AquAdvantage, and it’s the first genetically altered animal approved for human consumption in the United States. Alaska’s industry and congressional delegation call it “frankenfish.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she’s livid the FDA calls it food.

“It’s not going to be served at my dinner table, ever,” she said. “And boy oh boy, I’m going to do everything that I can to make sure that restaurants don’t serve it, that stores don’t have it sold in their store.”

Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young say they will try to pass a bill requiring a label on AquAdvantage, identifying it as genetically engineered. Farm-state lawmakers, though, have fiercely opposed any such a labeling requirement, fearing the next step would be mandatory labeling of genetically engineered crops.  The FDA has issued guidance for optional labeling of the new fish. Murkowski scoffs.

“You think that the aquAdvantage people are going to  … volunteer to put a label on that says ‘this is fake, this is genetically engineered, this is a Frankenfish’?” she said.  “No they’re not going to.”

The company, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, declined an interview request. It plans to produce the altered eggs on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and raise them in Panama, in covered, land-based tanks. The FDA has so far restricted them to those locations. But in a written statement reacting to the news, the company suggested it hopes the fish will eventually be produced in the U.S., too.

“The U.S. currently imports over 90% of all the seafood, and more specifically over 95% of the Atlantic salmon, it consumes,” the company said. “AquAdvantage Salmon will offer the opportunity for an economically viable domestic aquaculture industry while providing consumers a fresh and delicious product.”

The company insists its fish will never see ocean and, in any case, are incapable of reproduction. Opponents in Alaska, though, say the fish could escape and damage wild stocks.

The critics have an ally in national environmental groups.

“We will continue both educating consumers as well as restaurants and grocery retailers,” says Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth. The group has worked for years to get consumers and businesses to reject AquAdvantage.

“Already there’s more than 60 grocery store chains including Safeway and Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods,.that have already said they will not sell the GMO salmon, regardless of the FDA approval.”

She says Friends of the Earth will call on the Obama Administration to rescind the decision and will also challenge the process the FDA used.

In an email, AquaBounty said it’s too early to discuss how fish will appear on the market. Since farmed salmon grabbed substantial market share in the 1990s, Alaska has spent millions to pitch its salmon as  wild and healthy. Alexa Tonkovich, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, says ASMI can draw on that experience to meet the challenge of engineered fish, too.

“ASMI will just continue to promote wild natural and sustainable seafood and continue to try to differentiate ourselves in the market place,” she said.

One thing ASMI won’t do, she says, is bash the new fish. Tonkovich says their policy is not to speak ill of the competition.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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