November 2015, the FDA approved genetically engineered (GE) salmon for human consumption. Developed by the Massachusetts firm AquaBounty, these salmon, called AquaAdvantage, have been engineered with growth hormones from Chinook salmon and genes from an eel, a completely different species. AquaBounty believes these engineered changes will make their salmon grow at twice the rate of a normal salmon. They are scheduled to be on store shelves in 2020.

The FDA says it has “rigorously evaluated extensive data submitted by the manufacturer . . . and other peer-reviewed data” and concluded that “there are no biologically relevant differences in the nutritional profile of AquAdvantage salmon compared to that of other farm-raised Atlantic salmon.”

At first glance this sounds like a win-win situation. The supply of salmon will increase dramatically, the cost will decline, and the companies investing in this technology will hire many employees and likely earn lots of profits. This sounds great. Shouldn’t we all jump aboard? Unfortunately, nothing is as good as it sounds these days, even when it sounds as good as this does.

So what are the issues here? For one, the FDA says GE fish doesn’t have to be labeled as such. This doesn’t sit well with the many people who want – and believe they have a right – to know exactly what it is they are purchasing and eating. And many of them don’t want to eat genetically modified food. Another concern is that in addition to being genetically different than natural salmon, these fish also are allergenic.


Safe And Sound

AquaBounty, the company that developed this technology, asserts the GE salmon are “well-contained,” which means they can’t escape and breed with normal wild salmon. Not everyone is as sure.

According to Community Alliance for Global Justice, each year over two million farmed salmon escape from their “pens” into the North Atlantic, “straining ecosystems, out-competing wild salmon populations, and in some cases causing the fish to resort to cannibalism.”

Community Alliance cites research studies that show that if fertile male salmon were to escape into the ocean they could pass along their mutated genes. The result: Over time, natural wild salmon would become extinct. And if GE salmon are intentionally released, they would put “entire ecosystems and populations at even higher risk than they are today.”

Canadian scientists are concerned about a related problem. They say GE salmon could breed with closely related species and pass their genetically modified genes in this manner. The Center for Food Safety, among other agencies, pointed to reports that negligence and mismanagement at AquaBounty’s facilities increase the chance that their GE fish can escape.


First....But Not Last

AquaAdvantage is the first GE living creature approved for human consumption. In addition to the risk of turning the entire salmon population into “frankenfish,” there is an additional problem: the significant “risk of health problems in humans from the high use of antibiotics and hormones used in breeding.” At this time there have been few independent studies about GE salmon, and the FDA’s determination that it is safe to eat is based exclusively on the data that AquaBounty provided.

“If we are going to allow this fabricated fish to be sold in stores, we must ensure there is at least clear labeling,” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said. “Americans should not become test subjects for this new product without their full knowledge and consent.”

An overwhelming percentage of the public agrees with Senator Murkowski. According to a recent poll by ABC News, 93% of the public wants the government to require labels on food that has been genetically modified or bio-engineered. And the public is putting its money where its mouth is. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal is the fastest-growing seal in the Natural Products Industry.

Meanwhile, a growing number of retailers are aware of consumers’ opinions and have taken steps to keep their customers satisfied. More than 80 grocery chains and retailers around the country, including Costco, Safeway, Target, and Whole Foods, have promised to keep GE food out of their stores.

That is somewhat reassuring, but not entirely. Other stores will be selling it, and where money is concerned, well, we all know what can and sometimes does happen with rules and ethics. Besides, how long will it be until we start asking similar questions about GE chicken, turkey, and meat?

Rhode Island state senator Donna Nesselbush had this comment: “Are [genetically modified foods] good for us or bad for us? The problem is that we really don’t know,” she asserted in a commentary supporting legislation that would require labeling of those foods. “In an average grocery store, roughly 75 percent of processed foods contain genetically modified organisms,” she added.

With a GE label on fish or without one, lots of people are wondering whether something fishy is going on with our food. While we ponder this issue, hearty appetite to all.