After nearly five years of study, examination and deliberation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave its official blessing November 16 to AquaBounty Technologies for a genetically-modified salmon. Calling it safe for human consumption and noting that there was no discernible difference in nutritional value from traditionally farmed Atlantic salmon, the FDA ended a five-year-long wait for its verdict. The Massachusetts-based company that plans to market the salmon under the name AquAdvantage, said that Friday’s decision is “a game changer,” but also noted that the new fish will not be available to the public for about another two years.
The “modifications” to familiar Atlantic salmon involve inserting a gene from faster-growing Pacific Chinook salmon as well as a gene from the Pacific Pout that encourages year-round growth. It is a procedure that was first developed by Canadian public university students more than 25 years ago. AquaBounty, now largely owned by publicly-traded Intrexon Corp., first sought approval for the salmon in 1990.
A preliminary “safe” designation was handed down in 2010, but it faced overwhelming opposition from consumers and environmentalists. In addition, some scientists, fishermen and aquaculturists expressed concern that the modified salmon might “escape” and affect native fish populations. At least one group announced plans to file a suit within hours of the FDA announcement, according to a news article in “The New York Times.”
AquaBounty has stated that the new modified salmon will be raised in land-based facilities in Canada and Panama only, and that strict controls will be in place to prevent interbreeding with wild salmon or other aquatic species. In addition, they note, the genetically modified salmon will be incapable of reproduction, and there will be strict controls governing waste water and hatchery procedures.
The company also noted that they will comply with labeling requirements when the fish is delivered to retail outlets. However, draft guidelines issued by the FDA in conjunction with the approval, state that such labeling would be voluntary.
A news story by Reuters on Thursday, Nov. 19, quotes Dr. William Muir, a professor of genetics at Purdue University, who states that the “current practice of using wild-caught salmon as a food source is not sustainable.” He notes that the “oceans are overfished” and was one of at least 80 scientists urging support for the modified, farmed salmon. Other educators, scientists and advisers called the length of time for approval “unprecedented.” This represents the first time the FDA has acted on a proposal involving genetic modification of an animal. All other requests have involved plant material.
The Alaska-based wild salmon fishing industry opposes the “modern” salmon, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that she and other Pacific Northwest legislators will push for mandatory labeling. Vocal consumers have vowed that they will stop eating salmon rather than “taking the risk” of consuming genetically modified fish, or any other genetically engineered product. Several American grocery chains, including Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, have previously announced they would not carry the salmon.
Based on AquaBounty’s timeline, however, there is no chance that consumers have to remove salmon from their diets any time soon. Even when the company begins marketing the new salmon product, it is unlikely to make a huge dent in the American market. Production at the Panama facility is expected to be only about 100 tons a year. The U.S. currently imports about 300,000 tons yearly. There are also numerous other details to be worked out, according to AquaBounty Chief Executive Ronald Stotish, but he noted that “we have time.”
Stotish also said that the U.S. currently imports over 90 percent of the seafood, and specifically about 95 percent of the Atlantic salmon, that is consumed in the country. He added that the salmon offers an opportunity for “an economically viable domestic aquaculture industry.” The company is also “developing products to address critical production constraints in the most popular farmed species, focusing initially on salmon, trout, and tilapia. Its AquAdvantage® fish program is based upon a single, specific molecular modification in fish that results in more rapid growth in early development.”
AquaBounty’s parent corporation, Intrexon, is a leader in the field of synthetic biology for specific purposes, including food production, fuels and pharmaceutical products.