“Frankenfish” may soon be coming to a store near you.
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday announced it was removing the 2016 import alert that prohibited genetically engineered salmon from entering the U.S., according to Seafoodnews.com. The issue surrounds AquaBounty, a company that developed a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon that combined the genes of Chinook salmon with those of ocean pout to allow it to grow up to 50 percent faster than natural Atlantic salmon, the kind used in fish farms.
AquaBounty’s fish will be the first genetically modified food product introduced in the country.
The company first developed its process in the early 1990s, and began seeking FDA approval in 1996. The FDA review was not complete until 2015, at which time the FDA determined GM salmon was safe to eat and had no discernable differences in nutrient value than that of traditional Atlantic salmon.
However, at the time, much of the opposition to the FDA finding was not based on food safety, which is the FDA mandate, but on the bigger question of whether AquaBounty salmon could pose a threat to wild salmon stocks either through interbreeding or through outcompeting unmodified salmon due to their larger size.
The approval for AquaBounty salmon requires that it be raised on land only, and not be introduced into net pens. AquaBounty also claims that its salmon are sterile when grown and cannot reproduce on their own due to treatment to add a third chromosome. The company says that any batch of eggs that is found to contain 5 percent or more diploid (natural) chromosomes is destroyed. The GM salmon themselves are fully capable of breeding if left in the diploid state of having two chromosomes per egg.
Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced two bills in 2015 to try to stop the sale of GM salmon in the U.S. or at least require labeling of GM products, bills that did not pass. Sen. Lisa Murkowski,R-Alaska, also introduced legislation in response to the initial safety approval, filing riders that required any GM salmon to be labeled, and prohibited the FDA from allowing the import until this labeling rule was in place.
The FDA claims that Congress has in fact met this requirement with a 2016 law that requires disclosure. In implementing the law, the USDA released guidance that says companies can disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients in food products through use of either a QR code or on-package display of text or a designated symbol. That regulation is set to take full effect in January 2022.
At the time of the initial approval, a large number of U.S. retail chains pledged to environmental groups that they would not sell GM salmon. Originally wild salmon producers thought that AquaBounty salmon might devalue the entire consumer market for salmon, Seafood.com reports. More recently, wild producers have felt more confident that they could differentiate themselves from farmed salmon. Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s reaction to AquaBounty is not to panic.
Executive Director Jeremy Woodrow told KTOO in Juneau “Honestly, here at ASMI, we see that as just another farmed seafood product, and we’ve been competing against farmed salmon in the marketplace for several decades now.”
“Wild, natural, sustainable — those are attributes that really only apply to Alaska salmon, wild-harvested salmon, and that sets us apart in the marketplace … and those are the attributes that we’ll continue to sell to customers,” Woodrow said.
However, salmon farms are coming up against production capabilities, unable to supply enough farmed salmon for the demand, which is one reason for an expected upturn in Alaska salmon prices this season, and the AquaBounty salmon could help turn that around. Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and an analyst on the salmon panel at the Global Seafood Market Conference held in San Diego in January, said “In the past, producers were able to respond to a lot of demand by increasing the production. However, since production was hit in 2016 by the algae bloom in Chile, the gap has not been closed.
“There is a big gap between supply and demand and that is pushing up prices. It’s going to take a while to resolve that,” Wink said.
One key aspect to the AquaBounty approval is that it boosts the economic case for land-based salmon aquaculture. Already there has been major interest by investors in land-based facilities due to the continuing increased demand for salmon, and the difficulty of licensing new net pen sites. By cutting the growing time and the cost of feed, GM salmon have the potential to improve the break-even point for land-based systems. AquaBounty has said they will immediately bring in eggs to begin grow out in Indiana. However, Sen. Murkowski has pledged to strengthen the labeling law and called the FDA decision “wrongheaded.”
“I am not going to back down and will continue my fight to ensure that any salmon product that is genetically engineered be clearly labeled,” she said.
But Seafoodnews.com’s John Sackton said “the salmon market is big enough to have a lot of small non-label markets where this salmon could be competitive, such as in generic sushi operations. Given the strong growth in consumer demand for salmon, it is not clear at all whether outrage over AquaBounty’s product will have any impact.”
Cristy Fry can be reached at email@example.com