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If GE salmon came to your supermarket, would you recognize it?
Shortly before Thanksgiving 2015, the FDA granted final approval for thej sale of genetically modified salmon, making this very nutritious fish the first GMO animal the U.S. government has allowed on the market. Although genetically modified plant products are ingredients in roughly 70% of processed American foods with no labeling required, the EWG (Environmental Working Group) and other consumer advocacy groups are making more news by objecting (primarily through online campaigns) to the fact that, once GE salmon is in stores, consumers may have no way of telling the modified salmon from conventional salmon. The argument is that we have a right to know the nature of the food we're buying and eating. The underlying concern: fear that the product could be harmful to human health.
The government does not require labeling (to identify the presence of GE plant ingredients) but it has no objection if manufacturers CHOOSE to put such information on their packaging. The FDA's position on GE plants, stated in a November 23, 2015 update to its guidelines on foods derived from genetically engineered plants, is as follows: "The agency is not aware of any valid scientific information showing that foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class of foods, differ from other foods in any meaningful way. GE foods don't present greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding." But salmon is an animal--the first GMO animal allowed to enter the U.S. marketplace.
The FDA memo clarifies the meanings of the initials by explaining that genetic engineering is sometimes called "genetic modification" which creates genetically modified organisms, shortened to GMOs. But the FDA considers "genetic engineering (GE) to be the more "precise" term. We'll follow the FDA's lead and use GE in this piece.
By now you must be wondering what was done to the salmon to cause such an uproar, why salmon needed some "improvement," if, indeed it did, and whether, in fact, the new product is really safe to consume. These questions, and many more, have been investigated for years and Shelf Life Advice has posted 3 articles about GE salmon, so we'll merely summarize here and provide links to our past coverage on the subject. We'll also include some suggestions for how to avoiding GE salmon if you're determined to do so.
Who created this approved GE salmon and why?
A Canadian company--AquaBounty Technologies, Inc,--with offices on Prince Edward Island and in Massachusetts, was founded in 1991. AquaBounty first approached the FDA seeking approval for its GE salmon in the 1990s. After careful investigation of the product, the FDA concluded that AquaBounty's GE fish was safe for consumers to eat.
The company says it was driven by two scientific innovations--the use of "advanced molecular genetics to significantly increase the growth rate of an Atlantic salmon." (The goal was not to make a bigger salmon but a faster-growing one.) The second goal was "the development of land-based recirculating aquaculture systems, or RAS, that could eliminate salmon aquaculture's impact on marine ecosystems." The FDA decided that both these goals had been accomplished. Preliminary approval finally came in 2010. It took another five years for the concerns of opponents to be heard, considered, and rejected and for final approval by FDA.
Will we soon have a proliferation of copycat companies producing GE salmon? Food scientist Karin Allen says no. "AquaBounty holds the patent on this type of gene modification." Other companies who wanted to develop GE salmon would have to do so with their own methods.
AquaBounty is a small company that is now about 60% owned by Intrexon Corporation, a company that operates in the U.S. and deals with what is called synthetic biology, "a term used for sophisticated genetic engineering." according to the New York Times.
Here are some of the benefits the AquaBounty website lists for its innovative product:
"Salmon is a popular seafood choice, not only for taste but for the well-documented health benefits. This has increased demand for farmed and wild salmon products that the aquaculture industry and capture fisheries will not be able to meet.
"By 2020, the global demand for animal protein is projected to be 20 million tonnes per year. AquAdvantage® Salmon will help address the need for healthy protein by producing more fish in less time compared to current salmon farming techniques.
"AquAdvantage® Salmon can be grown in contained, land-based facilities which offer many environmental advantages compared to conventional cultivation methods."
To read more predictions about projected advantages, see AquaBounty's "Frequently Asked Questions," which discusses how American restaurants and the American economy in general will benefit. However, Shelf Life Advice articles on this topic (listed at the end of this article) point out that the benefits the company claims will be derived may not work out as predicted. One big question is whether or not the public will be squeamish about the genetic changes made to these fish. Also, some stores may choose not to carry it. Furthermore, some food scientists doubt that consumers would save money by purchasing GE salmon. Finally, opposition to this GE product has come from many sources. For example, in late 2010, when the FDA released information about their review of AquaBounty's petition and indicated no concern about possible harm to humans, members of Congress from states with a financial stake in fish farming or wild salmon fishing expressed concern. How GE salmon might affect the fishing industry is still an unknown.
What genetic changes caused these fish to grow faster than normal?
Here's the explanation, quoted from the Shelf Life Advice article "Will Genetically Engineered Salmon Be Coming to Your Dinner Table?": "A growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon (one of 8 species of Pacific salmon), is linked to another gene from a saltwater fish called a pout. The pout grows all year long whereas natural salmon grow only seasonally, mainly in warmer weather. Linking the pout gene to the Chinook gene and then inserting these genes into the fertilized egg of an Atlantic salmon causes the salmon to grow all year long, therefore, reaching maturity faster." AquAdvantage salmon can reach market weight in 18-20 months, whereas conventional salmon takes 28-36 months.
Does AquAdvantage® Salmon taste good?
According to AquaBounty, the company's GE c salmon is delicious ("buttery, light, juicy"), flaky, and tender. Moreover, it's produced in pure water and fed fine ingredients.
When will American consumers find AquAdvantage Salmon® in their supermarkets?
According to The New York Times, that may take as long as 2 years, and, at first, amounts may be small. Even with the accelerated growth of AquAdvantage, , it will take close to 2 years for these salmon to be in stores. Moreover, as production methods stand now the quantity produced may be small until the company expands production facilities.
How will the public find out which salmon in stores has been genetically altered?
1. If AquaBounty puts the company name or the product name (AquAdvantage) on the package, consumers may recognize it as the genetically altered salmon they've heard about. AquaBounty could also label its salmon "genetically engineered," but this is unlikely. Furthermore, it seems that most salmon sold in retail stores is not packaged until it's purchased, so there's no labeling that consumers see when selecting pieces. However, food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein expressed this thought, "As a practical matter, both for brand identity and to let consumers know that this is a special product, it is highly unlikely that AquaBounty will choose to sell its GE salmon generically without any labeling."
2. If a product is identified as "organic," then consumers know it can't contain any GE ingredients. At present, only farm-raised fish can be called "organic" because their diet is controlled, but the entire matter is quite muddy. Click here for a New York Times discussion of the issue. "At this time," Dr. Regenstein points out, "The U.S. has not approved any organic practices for fish, so any organic fish that consumers find in stores has come from elsewhere and meets the organic standards of other countries."
3 Food process engineer, Dr. Timothy Bowser predicts that processors of conventional salmon will probably start using labels that say that their products have NOT been genetically altered. They would fear that, if consumers are uncertain and concerned about the genetics of the fish, they wouldn't buy it.
4. Stores could post lists of all GE foods they sell or information about GE salmon for consumers to consult.
5. There could be an app providing information about GE products or just GE types of salmon.
Is genetic engineering a slippery slope to be avoided?
Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter says, "I don't see what the issue is. AquaBounty's genetic process simply accelerates what happens in nature. If, by using it, we can feed more people using fewer resources, that's a great benefit." Dr. Regenstein, has expressed the same thought.
Do Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board scientists have any fears about GE salmon?
None are afraid to eat it. The concerns expressed by some were about the environment, the effect these GE salmon could have on the wild salmon population if they escaped from their pens and mingled with conventional wild salmon.
Shelf Life Advice articles on GE salmon and GE in general:
shelflifeadvice.com "Will Genetically Engineered Salmon Be Coming to Your Dinner Table?"
shelflifeadvice.com."FDA Announcements: GE Salmon and new FSMA Rules"
shelflifeadvice.com "Is Genetically Engineered Food Safe? Should “GE” Be on Food Labels?"
shelflifeadvice.com " Is GM food safe or not? Scientists and the public don't see aye to aye."
aquabounty.com "Frequently Asked Questions"
nytimes.com "Genetically Engineered Salmon Approved for Consumption"
lifewithfussy.blogspot.com "CFSAN - Food From Genetically Engineered Plants is Safe to Eat"
Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board scientists who contributed to this article:
Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences
Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D. , Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science
Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science