Will Genetically Engineered Salmon Sink or Swim?

by David Love, Ph.D., Aquaculture Project Director Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

In a chilly hotel ballroom in the Washington, DC suburbs this September, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) heard from the public on the question of whether a farm-raised Atlantic salmon named “AquaAdvantage” should be approved as the first genetically engineered (GE) food animal. AquaAdvantage salmon contain a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon that allows them to grow faster and reach market sooner than conventionally farmed Atlantic salmon.

The FDA is considering four main questions for AquaAdvantage salmon approval: salmon health, food safety, environmental impact, and the product claims of increased growth. What FDA is not considering in its decision leaves some doubt as to the rigor and scope of the GE animal approval process. The FDA is not assessing the food safety of the whole fish by conducting feeding studies, but merely assessing the component parts of the fish without looking at cumulative risks. The FDA is not considering ethical arguments against genetic modification, or the broader social context of GE. Ecological problems caused by GE salmon escaping and interbreeding, or competing with wild salmon are of concern as well, and require more study. Animal welfare will not be considered during the AquaAdvantage approval process, either, as admitted by one FDA staff member at the hearing.

At the same series of public hearings, FDA also discussed labeling of food animal products. Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch argued in the public hearing that, if approved, GE salmon should be the first food required to carry a GE label. Gregory Jaffe from the Center for Science in the Public Interest cited that 70 percent of American consumers want GE food to be labeled. There are 62 genetically modified crop varieties in the US food supply, as reported in 2002 by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and none are currently required to be labeled as such. The US position on GE labeling runs counter to that of many other countries—since the late 1990s and early 2000s, labeling of GE foods has been required in the European Union, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Despite the precedent set by other countries and US consumers’ preference for labeling, the FDA has indicated that labeling will be based on a narrow view of material differences in GE salmon compared to non-GE salmon.

Industry groups and consultants, including Richard Carnevale of Animal Health Institute, were quick to repeat the platitude that there were no material reasons GE salmon should be labeled. Richard Clothier, chairman of the AquaBounty Technologies company that developed the AquaAdvantage salmon, rejected mandatory labeling as a “slippery slope” leading to labeling of all GE foods. Alison Van Eenennaam, of the University of California Cooperative Extension at UC Davis, proposed yet another line of arguments that genetic engineering is a production method, and production methods are too difficult to spell out on a label. This last statement seems to be at odds with both USDA organic labeling, which is a production method, and the rising consumer interest in how food is raised.

Observers speculate that AquaAdvantage salmon may eventually be approved and reach the market, though it is unclear whether it will be labeled as genetically engineered. The popularity of salmon in the US and the trend of increasing farmed salmon production globally means that consumers, and not regulators, will make the final decision on GE salmon—that is, if they know what they are buying. It remains to be seen if the FDA is limber enough to modernize its GE animal labeling and approval processes to keep pace with consumer awareness of GE issues and the coming migration of animals from the lab to the farm.

[portions of this piece were reproduced from posts on the LivableFutureblog.com]