Last week the FDA approved AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon, the first genetically modified animal OK’d in the U.S. It was a landmark decision that could have long-lasting implications for other genetically engineered (GE) products such as livestock (pigs, cattle, chickens) as well as reinforcing industry opposition to labeling such products (as in produce).
Affectionately known as “Frankenfish”, scientists combined the gene for a growth hormone from the Chinook (or king) salmon, the largest of the Pacific salmon species, and kicked that hormone into overdrive with a promoter gene taken from ocean pout, an eel-like fish that can survive and grow in near-freezing waters. “Usually the salmon’s growth hormone gets turned off during colder months,” says Virginia Tech’s Eric Hallerman. The pout’s promoter gene basically makes sure the Chinook growth gene never gets shut off. Voila: a mega-fish that grows to three times the size of Atlantic farmed salmon in half the time. “The FDA has thoroughly analyzed and evaluated the data and determined that food from the fish is safe to eat,” said the FDA’s Dr. Bernadette Dunham. That seems both logical and true, but likely misses the point.
There is a real concern that this new species could share genetic material with wild salmon. Currently, the only place the FDA allows the company to grow these fish, from eggs manufactured in Canada, are in aboveground freshwater tanks high in the Panamanian mountains. In order for a Frankenfish to compete or interbreed with wild salmon, it would have to escape the tanks, somehow make it to a river, and swim down that river into the ocean. The fish would have to swim thousands of miles to either the North Atlantic or North Pacific. But how long before the next tank is built closer to market, and according to scientists “Their traces could still be passed along to another generation.”
Another objection is that there will be no labeling requirement. “We recognize that some consumers are interested in knowing whether food ingredients are derived from GE sources,” said Dr. Susan Mayne. “The FDA is issuing two guidance documents that explain how food companies that want to voluntarily label their products can provide this information to consumers.” Downright Orwellian.
It continues to amaze that American consumers not recognize some incredible gifts we already have, like the world’s greatest wild salmon run. Next July, a commercial fisherman will land the two billionth salmon caught in Bristol Bay’s 133-year fishing history. Since the inception of the canned salmon industry there in 1884, Bristol Bay fishermen have landed 1.99 billion salmon. Fishermen will achieve the two-billion-salmon milestone when they catch another 9.5 million. This will happen next season, based on ADF&G’s recently released forecast for a harvest of almost 30 million sockeye in 2016, of which over 60% will be sent overseas. Describing new approaches to a broken seafood supply chain, Sea to Table was featured in a recent Food Logistics article.
I can’t put my finger on it, but something seems most strange about a Massachusetts company using eggs developed in Canada to “create” fish to be raised in Panama. Something from the mind of Philip K. Dick.
All the best,
from the Dimin Family and the Sea to Table team