LAS VEGAS, Nevada, US — Controversial genetically engineered (GE) salmon pioneer AquaBounty Technologies could be cleared to begin US salmon sales if a continued prohibition against its imports isn’t inserted into the next federal budget, the company says.
However, an Alaskan senator who was crucial in tweaking a 2016 budget bill that led to the import ban says that she will continue to fight for the company’s salmon to be labeled as genetically engineered ahead of any US sales.
Speaking to an audience at the recent Aquaculture America conference, Dave Conley, the Maynard, Massachusetts-based company’s communications director, said that language inserted into the bill authorizing the US federal budget for 2016 banned genetically engineered salmon imports into the US until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides guidelines on labeling. Based on the language, the FDA issued an import alert — meaning AquaBounty, which currently grows out its salmon in a small-scale production facility in Panama, can’t bring it into the US
Without similar language in this year’s budget, the import ban will be lifted, Conley said.
“The other thing is that if the new budget bill that comes in doesn’t contain any of that warning than this thing will be thrown out and things will now be able to move on. This has really been a battle to try and get a fish into a market, which is obviously in need of it,” he said.
When contacted, Karina Petersen, a spokeswoman for the office of Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, who fought for the import ban, told Undercurrent News that efforts to continue blocking AquaBounty’s efforts to get the fish to market in the US are ongoing.
“Senator Murkowski is working to ensure that production will not happen until labeling guidelines are in place and there is a proper review of the process by which GE salmon and future GE animals for human consumption are approved,” Petersen said. “Omnibus spending bill negotiations are currently underway.”
AquaBounty, which received FDA approval to sell its salmon in the US in 2015, produces eggs in Canada and has a production facility in Canada. It is currently preparing to expand its production capability in both Prince Edward Island, Canada, and in Albany, Indiana, where it purchased the recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility of theformer Bell Fish Company for $14 million last year.
AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon is Atlantic salmon modified with snippets of genetic code from Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout, which allows it to grow much faster than conventional Atlantic salmon. The company grows its fish in land-based RAS systems, but has raised the ire of several environmental and consumer groups worried about the GE salmon’s impact on consumers and wild fish stocks. Several have sued but this litigation has been unsuccessful thus far.
Murkowski has been a leader in the legislature militating against GE salmon sales in the US. After the FDA granted its approval to the company in 2015, the senator has switched her focus to requiring labeling for GE animals.
“She will continue her fight for the health of both consumers and Alaska’s fisheries, by pushing for the FDA to mandate labeling of GE salmon, whether through legislation or through appropriations,” Petersen, her spokeswoman, said.
While the import alert remains in place, the development of labeling guidelines moves ahead.
FDA spokeswoman Annie Norris told Undercurrent in an email that while the budget bill’s language charged the FDA with publishing final labeling guidelines, congressed passed a law in July 2016, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act, which changed things.
That law tasks the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop a “national mandatory standard for labeling of food containing bioengineered ingredients”, she said.
The USDA has until July 29 to publish those regulations, which will set out whether and how to label foods such as the GE salmon as “bioengineered”, Norris added.
The FDA, she added, is waiting on the text of the coming budget bill as well as the USDA’s regulations.
“The FDA is aware that Congress is considering various proposals with respect to the labeling of GE salmon, but the agency is unable to speculate about what will happen to the import alert or determine next steps until we have the final appropriations language,” she said.
Conley of AquaBounty said that the company is monitoring the labeling guidelines issue. He added that he believes consumer acceptance of eating GE salmon will come, someday.
“I think consumers are going to eat the salmon, and they are going to like it, and we are going to move past what we’ve been suffering the past 25 years,” he said.