In November 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its approval of the first-ever genetically modified (GM) animal for human consumption: salmon.
The Massachusetts-based biotech company AquaBounty Technologies developed the GM salmon back in the 1990s, and its approval process spent several years in limbo as government organizations reviewed safety information, while many consumers, scientists and environmentalists pushed back with fervent opposition.
The “AquAdvantage Salmon” has been genetically modified to grow to market size in about half the time as a non-engineered, farmed salmon. The company combined growth hormones from Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like species, to cause the new salmon to produce growth hormones year-round instead of only in spring and summer. A prominent concern is that wild salmon populations could be affected if the lab-engineered fish were to escape into oceans and rivers. The GM salmon are made sterile to prevent reproduction in the event they do escape, although the sterilization technique is not 100 percent effective. Some scientists point out that even if the GM salmon escaped and couldn’t reproduce with wild salmon, these fast-growing, large fish could still harm wild salmon by competing with them for food and habitat.
As with other GM foods sold in the United States, the salmon wasn’t initially going to require a label or any other indication that it had been genetically engineered. According to Just Label It, a national organization that advocates for the labeling of GM products, the FDA’s November approval announcement included recommendations for voluntary labeling of the GM salmon. But experience has shown that, given a choice, companies will not include such labels.
As of late January 2016, however, the FDA suddenly changed its ruling. It issued a ban on the salmon until the agency could publish guidelines for how the salmon should be labeled.
According to a report in The Washington Post, the FDA’s action was prompted by language in a federal spending bill recently passed by Congress, which instructed regulators to forbid the sale of genetically engineered salmon until labeling guidelines were established. Up to that point, AquaBounty had said the GM salmon could start being imported and sold in the United States in about two years (the GM salmon had been approved for sale in the United States, but not for production in this country, so the fish was going to be imported from Panama). Now, it may be much longer before the salmon actually makes it to U.S. markets. When it does, some grocery stores say they have been listening to the consumer backlash and won’t carry the GM salmon.