ELLSWORTH — A decades-long struggle came to an end, or at least a pause, last week when the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of genetically modified salmon for human consumption.
Ruling on an application by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies Inc. to sell its genetically modified AquAdvantage Salmon, which grows twice as fast as ordinary Atlantic salmon, the FDA determined that “there are no biologically relevant differences in the nutritional profile of AquAdvantage Salmon compared to that of other farm-raised Atlantic salmon.”
The federal agency also ruled that once the genetically modified fish reach store shelves they will not have to be specifically labeled because there are no material differences between engineered and ordinary.
Sorting one from the other in the fish case won’t be an issue for consumers for a while.
Last Friday, the giant Costco chain joined other major retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target and Kroger, that have announced that they are not planning to sell AquAdvantage Salmon. So far, no fish are available to sell.
In an email on Monday, Dave Conley, AquaBounty’s director of corporate communications, said the company was not yet growing its AquAdvantage fish in commercial quantities and was only now figuring out how to accomplish that.
“We must now begin our plans for commercial production,” Conley said.
That won’t be easy.
The FDA approval allows the company to raise its fish “only in land-based, contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama.” The approval does not, the FDA said, allow AquAdvantage Salmon to be bred or raised in the United States or, except for the two hatcheries, anywhere else for that matter.
AquaBounty claims that its genetically modified salmon grow to market size more rapidly than conventional salmon because of “a single specific molecular modification” in the fish. By cutting the production cycle in half — from about three years to approximately 16-18 months — the company argues that its fish make land-based salmon farming economically possible.
A shorter production cycle should be attractive to fish farmers everywhere, but, according to Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, the salmon farming industry has long opposed the introduction of genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.
“The position of the Maine Aquaculture Association and ISFA (the International Salmon Farmers Association) has not changed at all,” Belle said last week. ISFA includes most of the world’s major Atlantic salmon farming producers including growers from the United States, Canada, Scotland, Norway, Chile and elsewhere.
That position could change, he said, if four things occurred. First, “our customers specifically ask for GMO salmon”; second, that competitors growing GMO salmon were “getting a significant competitive advantage”; third, that the “quality and disease resistance” of GMO fish would have to be “better, not the same as, existing fish.
The fourth condition, Belle said, relates to the industry’s position that “the FDA assessment was insufficient” on the potential environmental impact of the genetically engineered fish.
Other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service, need to “conduct reviews that conclude that the escape” of genetically engineered fish is no more hazardous to the environment than the escape of conventional Atlantic salmon.
With ISFA opposed to the AquAdvantage salmon, Belle said, “99 percent of the international growing community won’t produce” the fish.
What impact will that have on the fast-growing salmon reaching consumers’ plates in the foreseeable future?
Right now, Conley said, it is “too early” to talk about when or where the company’s salmon may come to market.
“We have to consider our options and develop our business plans. It will be at least two years before there are even introductory quantities of AquAdvantage Salmon available.”