Genetically engineered AquaBounty salmon ready for US market, but caught in Congressional ‘sausage grinder’

“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

The true version of a quote that 19th century Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck likely never uttered nonetheless illustrates how, at least for genetically engineered salmon, watching current lawmaking on GE food is putting this new fish into a grind.

For the AquAdvantage salmon, an Atlantic salmon modified to grow twice as fast as conventional Atlantic salmon and far more sustainably, the true grinding action is coming from two conflicting directions:

  • A law introduced by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and signed into law by President Obama in December 2015 that will not allow sale of the GE salmon until the US Food and Drug Administration publishes information guidelines and mandates labels.
  • Another law—the bioengineering labeling statute passed in 2016—introduced by Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan––blocks states from creating their own GM/GE labels, and calls for the US Department of Agriculture to create final labeling guidelines.

For its part, the USDA has stated that it will not issue such a label, because that’s now the FDA’s job.

Under a third statute, the Omnibus Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2017, AquaBounty salmon is prohibited commercially in the United States until “the FDA publishes final labeling guidelines informing consumers of such content.” So, where does that leave genetically modified salmon in the United States? Stuck in the grind.

AquaBounty has stated:

We frustratingly read, almost on a daily basis, about the crisis within the salmon industry with imposed cuts in the fishing season and unable to support the demand for salmon. The Company remains committed to growing our business outside the US whilst continuing to press for resolution from the FDA on this matter in the US.

These new laws have stymied the company’s entry into the US market, even though the FDA approved the AquaBounty salmon as safe to eat in 2015. Meanwhile, the GE fish was approved for sale in Canada in 2016. In August 2017, AquaBounty said it had sold 4.5 tons of AquAdvantage salmon fillets to customers in Canada.

In addition to its facilities in Canada and Panama, AquaBounty in 2017 acquired a land-based fish farm in Indiana, to complement its facility on Prince Edward Island to be used to raise the genetically modified salmon. The GE salmon was developed by the insertion of a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon into Atlantic salmon, and a promoter sequence from ocean pout. This genetic combination allows it to reach market weight about twice as fast as the conventional fish, opening the door to higher fish yields using less inputs to meet increasing demand. The land-based tanks also were considered to be less of an impact on the environment, since they are contained facilities and don’t allow waste (or escaped fish) into the marine environment.

“Both of these facilities must be approved by the FDA prior to their initial stocking with AquAdvantage Salmon, but we anticipate both to be operational in 2018 with a first harvest of commercial production in late 2019,” the company has said.

Opposition to the salmon has been limited but fierce from old-line environmentalists and some environmental groups, however. Food and Water Watch, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the David Suzuki Foundation among other vocal advocacy groups have campaigned against the fish; joined lawsuits against regulatory authorities in the US and Canada; and filed a litany of complaints against adopting the genetically modified fish with government institutions.


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Genetically engineered AquaBounty salmon ready for US market, but caught in Congressional ‘sausage grinder’

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