Whether or not you are squeamish about consuming salmon whose genes have been tinkered with, it’s likely headed to a market near you. And chances are, unless you are a smartphone carrying person with ample time to scan QR codes and peruse websites while rolling your cart down the grocery store isle, you won’t know that the salmon filet you picked off the shelf is a genetically modified food. That’s because last Friday, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lifted an import alert that banned genetically engineered salmon from entering the country. The agency did so despite a lawsuit challenging the FDA's original approval of the fish, and despite a Congressional mandate that the ban stay in place until the agency instated some labeling guidelines.
The FDA had cleared a transgenic salmon variety created by biotech company AquaBounty as safe to consume back in 2015, despite vocal opposition by millions of Americans and more than 40 members of Congress, making it the first genetically engineered animal allowed to be sold as food in the US. Within months of the approval, Congress blocked the agency from allowing the fish to be sold in the US until it had implemented labeling guidelines to inform consumers that it had genetically modified.
But last Friday, the FDA lifted the import restriction, saying it no longer had the authority to issue labeling guidelines because another federal agency, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), had been mandated by Congress to set standards for disclosing transgenic foods. In a statement released that day, the FDA said that the USDA had already issued regulations in 2018 requiring human food containing genetically modified (GM) salmon bear labeling indicating that it is “bioengineered.”
The repeal of the import alert means AquaBounty can go ahead with plans to bring its GM salmon eggs to its facility in Indiana where they can be grown into fish and sold at US supermarkets. The company’s CEO, Sylvia Wulf, told the Associated Press that the company expects to get a final certification for its Indiana growing facility, where it plans to eventually produce some 1,200 metric tons of GM salmon a year, in the coming weeks.
This development has, naturally, caused much concern among food and environment advocates who are worried about the threat the fish poses to wild salmon populations and consumers.
"The FDA's decision to allow GMO salmon onto the US market runs counter to sound science and market demand,” says Dana Perls, senior food policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, pointing out that the FDA agency decided these fish are safe to eat based solely on data provided by AquaBounty and that more than 80 US retailers have already said they won’t sell the fish.
The fish, called “AquAdvantage salmon,” was created by modifying Atlantic salmon with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and genetic material from the eel-like ocean pout. These modifications make it produce growth hormones year-round, allowing it to grow nearly twice as fast as conventionally farmed salmon, reaching market weight in 18 to 20 months instead of 28 to 36.
Perls says the FDA’s environmental assessment of the fish did not adequately look at the impact it might have on wild salmon populations should some of them escape from a fish-farming facility. Since these transgenic fish grow much faster than wild salmon, should they escape, they may be able to outcompete wild salmon for food and reproduce at a much faster rate. (Read more about the FDA’s 2015 assessment and decision.)
AquaBounty says it will produce only sterile females and rear the fish in land-based facilities, but fish are known to change sex, especially when they are under stress, and so far, there is no failsafe method to ensure 100 percent sterility. Data AquaBounty submitted to the FDA shows that several of its research trials did not achieve complete sterilization. Environmentalists and some scientists as well fear that once these fish begin to be produced on a commercial scale, it will be hard to ensure compliance with appropriate containment measures.
Besides, the company will always need to keep stocks of fertile GM fish to produce additional offspring. Right now, these fertile fish are being reared on Prince Edward Island, Canada in the middle of the historic range of the endangered Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty ships eggs produced by these fertile fish to its facility in Panama, where environmental regulations aren’t as stringent. The fish are grown to market size there before being shipped back as fillets to Canada, where GM salmon is allowed to be sold without any labeling at all. (Despite all this international back and forth of eggs and filets, AquaBounty’s website says its GM salmon is “100 Percent North American Raised” and “The World’s Most Sustainable Salmon.”)
There is little data on the possible human health impacts of consuming genetically engineered fish, but Perls says what little information is out there raises some troubling questions and begs for more assessment. For instance, the GM fish have higher levels of IGF-1, a growth hormone that’s associated with increased risk of several types of cancer if absorbed and biologically active in the human body.
In the absence of adequate research into the environmental and health risks this fish might pose, it’s now up to consumers to choose whether they would like to eat GM fish or not. But even making that choice is going to difficult.
“USDA’s labeling guidelines require transgenic foods to be labeled ‘bioengineered.’ That is not a term people connect with GMOs," says George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety. Besides, he points out, the guidelines don’t actually require clear, on-package labeling using text. Instead, they allow producers the choice of using QR codes or 1-800 numbers that people have to access if they want more information.
“There are a number of inherent issues with the USDA’s guidelines,” Kimbrell says. “First and foremost, it is a discriminatory, biased system. Not everyone owns a smartphone, the demographics for that skews upper middle class and urban. And in any case, most people simply don’t have the time to scan QR codes or call phone numbers to find out what kind of food they are holding in their hands.”
“What USDA has done is very problematic in and of itself, and it’s not what Congress had mandated [in terms of labeling GM salmon],” he says.
Over in Canada, the FDA’s decision and the USDA’s weak labeling requirements have caused much consternation among environmental and consumer that groups continue to campaign for mandatory labeling of GM salmon. “This move actually makes it more difficult for Canadians to demand mandatory labeling in one way, because now we have this very opaque example from the US that doesn’t provide the clarity that consumers are looking for in Canada,” says Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), which works to raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. “It’s almost worse than the US having no labeling requirements at all.”
Sharratt says the FDA basically “rescued AquaBounty just in time before its only market, the Canadian market, was largely closing to them.” The company, she says, was struggling to sell its GM salmon there. “We have evidence that wherever consumers were citing concern, food and grocery companies were responding by saying they won’t use it.” All major grocery chains in Canada have said they have no intention of buying or selling GM salmon.
AquaBounty says it has been selling the GM fish in Canada in “limited quantity” and that consumers have loved it, eating it in various dishes, including sushi. But Sharrat says that given there are no labeling requirements there, it’s not clear who those consumers are. “We did track some shipments down to two wholesalers through import documents we obtained from freedom of information requests. We know the fish went to the food service industry, but was it restaurants, was is it institutional catering outfits, we don’t know.”
Most recently, CBAN has found that most of the GM salmon is being sent to Quebec, and once that information became public most sushi companies there announced they wouldn’t use the transgenic fish.
For coastal Native Americans whose culture and lives are deeply intertwined with salmon, GM salmon represents yet another cultural violation. “Lifting the ban on genetically engineered salmon … has directly attacked the life ways of Pacific Northwest Tribal communities,” says Valerie Segrest, member of the Muckleshoot Tribe and executive director of Feed Seven Generations, which works to revitalize the health and wellness of Native people.
“[The FDA has] done this without a single tribal consultation, which violates their legal responsibility, mandating that they consult with tribes. Clearly this is an appropriation of our culture and this action will lead to inevitable contamination and irreversible damage to our food system,” she says. Segrest is working to set a special meeting of the Northwest Indian Fishers Commission to see if “there’s something we can do collectively, like maybe pass a resolution banning GM salmon from Puget Sound waters.”
Meanwhile, Kimbrell says the Center for Food Safety and its allies are examining possible legal actions to force the FDA to comply with the Congressional mandate. He is hopeful that an existing lawsuit led by the Center and Earthjustice and challenging whether the FDA even has the legal authority to approve this GM fish will halt AquaBounty entry into the US. “We are on schedule to have a decision on that later this year, and if we win, it will offer a remedy in that the fish can no longer be imported or sold anywhere in the US.”