GE salmon a long way from US dinner plate despite FDA approval

For the first time, the FDA has approved the sale and consumption of a genetically engineered animal, the AquAdvantage salmon developed by a Massachusetts company. Although FDA approval is a signal achievement for the biotechnology industry – the first GE crops went on the market in 1996 – it could be years before fillets or steaks from the fast-growing salmon are sold in supermarkets.

Opponents, led by anti-GMO Center for Food Safety, say they will file suit to overturn FDA approval on grounds the agency did not adequately consider the risk of the biotech strain of Atlantic salmon. They also are trying to close the grocery market to the salmon from AquaBounty Technologies. Nine supermarket chains – Aldi, Giant Eagle, H-E-B, Hy-Vee, Meijer, Target, Safeway, Whole Foods and WinCo – with 15 percent of the 37,700 supermarkets in the country, will not sell GMO seafood, according to Greenpeace. “We urge President Obama to overturn FDA’s approval,” said the consumer group Food and Water Watch.

At the same time, FDA said it would allow foodmakers to say voluntarily on labels if their products are made from GE crops or GE salmon; labeling will not be required for the AquAdvantage salmon. The largest U.S. farm group said, “The FDA today rejected petitions to the White House for mandatory labeling of GMOs. This administration has long been a champion for nutrition and today’s action recognizes how biotechnology is changing the way we grow foood – for the better,” said the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Ronald Stotish, chief executive of AquaBounty, said the fish “is a game-changer” that will increase seafood production without damaging the ocean. in an interview with the New York Times, Stotish declined to discuss marketing plans,” other than that the salmon would not be in stores immediately because it would take about two years for even these fast-growing salmon to reach market size.”

FDA conditioned its approval on production at two sites outside the United States, breeding stock on Prince Edward Island in Canada and a facility in Panama to grow the salmon eggs to mature fish. The Panama facility has a capacity of 100 tons of fish a year, according to Stotish. At both sites, fish will be held in tanks on land with nets, filters and other devices to prevent escape.

“While today’s decision marks the first approval of a GE food animal, its impact on American consumers will be negligible,” said consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, pointing to the “extremely limited production” allowed by FDA and the months needed to grow salmon to marketable size.

Consumers Union, “deeply disappointed” by commercialization of the salmon, said FDA should have required labels on the GE salmon. CSPI said information should be available in some form, such as a label, printed materials in the store, on a website or other means.

AquaBounty pursued FDA approval of its salmon for two decades. Its strain of Atlantic salmon includes a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon so it consumes less feed and grows to marketable size twice as fast as conventional salmon. On its website, AquaBounty says, “Blind taste tests have consistently found that our AquAdvantage Salmon is among the world’s most delicious.”

“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 Bernadette Dunham, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine, in the FDA announcement.

In the announcement, FDA said it was releasing a final version of “guidance” for voluntary labeling of foods containing GMO crops or not. Beginning on Monday, it will accept comments for 60 days on its draft guideline on labeling foods as containing or not containing GE salmon.

The vast majority of U.S. corn, soybeans and sugarbeets are grown from GMO seeds, so processed foods from cereals and salad dressing to baked goods are likely to contain GMO ingredients.

Companies have had the option since 2001 of voluntary labeling “but not one has chosen to do so,” said the Just Label It campaign for mandatory labeling.

Canadian consumer and environmental groups, who were in court this week in an attempt to reverse their government’s approval of the Prince Edward Island facility, said FDA approval of the GE salmon could have grave consequences for Canada.