SAN DIEGO — Genetically engineered salmon, called “Frankenfish” by some, won FDA approval Thursday. AquaAdvantage salmon, produced by AquaBounty, are genetically modified to grow faster than farm-raised Atlantic salmon so they can get to consumers faster. This is the first approval of a genetically engineered animal intended for food.
“The FDA has thoroughly analyzed and evaluated the data and information submitted by AquaBounty Technologies regarding AquAdvantage salmon and determined that they have met the regulatory requirements for approval, including that food from the fish is safe to eat,” said Dr. Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.
The agency deemed them safe to eat, determined that the claim of faster growth is true and that there is no biological difference between these salmon and nongenetically engineered salmon. Because there is no difference, the company is not required to identify its salmon as genetically modified with a label or in any other way. (The FDA did publish draft guidance for companies that want to voluntarily label their foods as genetically engineered.)
The FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee took up the issue in 2010. The genetic engineering for these salmon is a combination of a growth gene from Pacific chinook salmon (to accelerate growth) and genetic material from an eel-like fish called “ocean pout” (which allow the fish to grow year round). This results in a recombinant DNA (considered a drug by FDA definition) that is injected into the eggs of Atlantic salmon. The new genetically altered salmon are also reproductively sterile, a comforting detail to those worried about mutant offspring.
The approval specifically states that these salmon can only be raised on land-based, contained hatchery tanks at two specific facilities in Canada and Panama and no other locations in the United States or elsewhere. The approved locations have met the criteria required to properly contain the fish and prohibit any eggs or fish from escaping. These facilities will be subject to regulation and inspection from the FDA as well as from the Canadian and Panamanian governments.
This is good news for proponents like Yonathan Zohar, chairman of the department of marine biotechnology at the University of Maryland Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology. He testified before the FDA in support of approval at a 2010 hearing, warning the supply is greater than demand when it comes to consuming fish. He believes the science endorsed by the FDA on Thursday should be accepted as long as we want to continue eating fish. He said the decision is just the start, and suggested that other genetic engineering of fish in the future could help stave off disease.
Wenonah Hunter, executive director of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, issued a statement calling the FDA decision unfortunate and accusing the agency of disregarding scientists, salmon growers, consumers and Congress, who have all strongly opposed the approval. The group also said the optional labeling “ignores consumers’ fundamental right to know how our food is produced” and called it bad for business. Hunter said she worries consumers will stop buying fish out of fear that it may be unknowingly genetically engineered. The group said it is exploring all options to prevent the modified salmon from getting to store shelves.
Zohar said he agrees on the labeling, saying it should be done so consumers know and won’t stay away from salmon altogether, adding that there is no reason to avoid the new fish. He said he recognizes the resistance but noted that people have been consuming genetically engineered crops (which are not labeled) for years without thinking twice. He was referring to corn, soybeans, watermelon, tomatoes and the like.
As far as when the salmon will be in a store near you, AquaBounty said, “It is too early to discuss commercialization plans but there are several paths to market that are being considered.”