A kind of salmon that's been genetically modified so that it grows faster may be on the way to a supermarket near you. The Food and Drug Administration approved the fish on Thursday — a decision that environmental and food-safety groups are vowing to fight.
This new kind of fast-growing salmon was actually created 25 years ago by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies. A new gene was inserted into fertilized salmon eggs — it boosted production of a fish growth hormone. The result: a fish that grows twice as fast as its conventional, farm-raised counterpart.
AquaBounty has been trying to get government approval to sell its fish ever since. Five years ago, the FDA's scientific advisers concluded that the genetically modified fish, known as AquaAdvantage salmon, is safe to eat and won't harm the environment.
Alison Van Eenennaam, a biotechnology specialist at the University of California, Davis, who was part of that scientific evaluation, says it wasn't a hard decision. "Basically, nothing in the data suggested that these fish were in any way unsafe or different to the farm-raised salmon," she says.
The FDA now is giving the salmon a green light. In a statement, the agency said that the data indicated "that food from the GE salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals" and "that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish." It's the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption.
The FDA also says there's no reason why the fish needs to be labeled as different from any other salmon in the supermarket. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, decried that decision. "We are deeply disappointed with the FDA's decision to approve the AquaAdvantage salmon," Michael Hansen, senior scientist with Consumers Union, said in a statement. "And it's even more concerning that the FDA chose not to require any form of labeling, making it extremely difficult for consumers to know if the salmon is GE or not."
The FDA is requiring AquaBounty to take precautions to make sure the fish don't get into the ocean, where they might compete with — or interbreed with — wild salmon. Critics of FDA approval for the salmon have repeatedly raised such concerns. AquaBounty says that the likelihood of its fish escaping is "virtually impossible," as Dave Conley, the company's director of corporate communications, told us this summer.
AquaBounty will only be allowed to raise the modified fish in tanks, on land, at just two sites — one in Canada and one in Panama. And the company says its fish will be sterile, so if they escape, they will fail to reproduce.
But those precautions aren't enough for the fish's opponents. "This frankenfish, this GMO salmon, should not be approved, and shouldn't have been approved," says Dana Perls, a campaigner with the environmental group Friends of the Earth.
Perls and other critics of this decision say that in the future, GMO fish farms may get bigger; mistakes will happen, and fish will escape into the oceans. To stop it now, they're organizing consumer boycotts.
"People do not want to eat this fish," Perls says. "And it's becoming more and more clear that the majority of consumers won't eat the GMO fish, even if it is available." In 2013, a New York Times poll found that three-quarters of Americans would not eat genetically modified fish. And in a 2010 poll by NPR, just 35 percent of respondents said they would try such fish.
Friends of the Earth says more than 60 grocery store chains have already promised not to sell the fish — including Safeway, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Aldi and many others.
And the Center for Food Safety, an environmental-advocacy group, says it will sue the FDA to block the approval of the salmon.