- The Food and Drug Administration announced last week it is lifting a 2016 import alert that kept genetically modified salmon and salmon eggs from coming into the country until labeling guidelines were adopted. This means AquaBounty Technologies can legally bring its GMO AquAdvantage Salmon eggs into the U.S. from Canada and grow the fish for food at the company's contained facility in Indiana.
- The FDA makes risk-based evaluations of what it calls "intentional genomic alterations" in animals to ultimately be sold for consumption, according to the release. In 2015, the agency had determined that the AquAdvantage Salmon was "safe to eat," but activists staunchly opposed its approval.
- The agency said it no longer has authority to issue labeling guidelines for GMO products such as AquAdvantage Salmon since the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now in charge of implementing mandatory standards for disclosing whether a food is bioengineered following the recent adoption of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.
Lifting the import alert is a big step for GMO products and clears the way for AquAdvantage Salmon to hit the market — potentially as soon as next year, barring other regulatory obstacles. To date, it's the only genetically modified animal the FDA has approved for human consumption, according to Politico.
The company's genetically modified fish — Atlantic salmon with a growth hormone gene from the Pacific Chinook variety and a gene from the ocean pout species — will quickly grow to a size that can be used for sale in a land-based freshwater tank system near Albany, Indiana, according to Feedstuffs. The company is also growing genetically modified salmon at its facility on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and is setting up operations in Brazil, Argentina, Israel and China.
The U.S. fishing industry can't be expected to welcome this news since it is already challenged by dwindling salmon runs and limits on when and where the fish can legally be harvested. While prices have risen due to strong demand, projected growth in supply has decreased since this past year, according to Undercurrent News. Also, genetically modified salmon can be raised faster and year-round, meaning available supplies could presumably be much greater than those of wild-caught or conventionally farmed salmon.
Consumer, environmental and native groups were critical of the FDA's decision, saying consumers will be left out in the cold because of what they called inadequate labeling.
"USDA's new guidelines don't require adequate mandatory labeling, don't require calling the fish 'genetically engineered,' and don't help consumers know what kind of fish they are buying," George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety, said in a release from CFS, Friends of the Earth, Quinault Indian Nation and Feed Seven Generations.
This group also said retailers won't sell the salmon because it is risky. The CFS release linked to a 2017 list of retailers with policies not to sell genetically modified seafood. These include Albertsons, Aldi, Giant Eagle, Hy-Vee, Jewel-Osco, Kroger, Meijer, Safeway, Target, Trader Joe's, Walmart, Whole Foods and a large number of natural and organic food retailers.
The FDA may be using the USDA's final labeling rule to justify lifting the import alert, but this move could backfire if sufficient numbers of consumers become aware that AquAdvantage Salmon is genetically engineered. Some will probably know and buy it anyway. Others may just avoid it as so-called "Frankenfish." Others may not care whether it is labeled as GMO, while some may feel clear on-package labeling is needed.
Plenty of GMO food products are on the market now, such as Rainbow papayas from Hawaii, which were developed to resist the ringspot virus. Common staples — including some sugar beets, corn, soybeans, zucchini, canola and cottonseed — are predominantly genetically modified, but aren't labeled as such.
Because consumers typically want more transparency and information about their foods and beverages, it might be smart for AquaBounty to get out in front of the issue from the start and clearly label its AquAdvantage Salmon as a GMO so people can't complain they didn't know. Whether the company is willing to take that marketing risk after waiting years to get approval to start U.S. production — and posting millions in recent net operating losses — will soon be determined.