What You Need to Know About Genetically Engineered Salmon

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Foods containing GMOs likely make up a good portion of your diet already, considering more than 90 percent of our corn, soybeans, and sugar beets are genetically modified, according to the Center for Food Safety. But last week, the FDA approved the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption — a salmon that critics are calling "frankenfish," citing health and environmental concerns.

The not terribly appetizing-sounding "AquAdvantage salmon" contain a growth hormone to make them grow twice as fast. The salmon eggs are fertilized in a facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada and then sent to Panama to grow before being sold in the U.S. AquaBounty, which first submitted its application for approval of AquAdvantage salmon to the FDA in the mid-90s, says their salmon poses no health risks and will be produced more sustainably than wild salmon. 

Describing its review of genetically engineered fish scientific and exhaustive, the FDA says that genetically engineered salmon is as safe as everyday salmon. "The data demonstrated that the inserted genes remained stable over several generations of fish, that food from the new kind of salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals, that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish, and the salmon meets the sponsor's claim about faster growth," the FDA said in a statement. 

Critics worry, however, because little is known about the health and safety testing AquaBounty submitted to the FDA (the FDA doesn't do its own safety testing), such as what the health effects might be for people who eat fish containing growth hormone. And they say we don't know what might happen if genetically altered salmon escapes and the much bigger fish breed with natural salmon. AquaBounty says that the fish are sterile females, so breeding won't be an issue. They insist that AquAdvantage salmon won't be raised near a water source, so the fish won't be able to escape. In addition, their fish will be housed in specially designed buildings that not only prevent escape but also control the water going in and out of the facility, enabling them to recycle 95 percent of the water used.

The safety of their production process, however, "hinges on whether the facilities in Canada and Panama do a good job in preventing any adverse environmental impact," says Patty Lavella, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, who points out that Panamanian officials fined AquaBounty for violating environmental safety regulations just last year.

If you're thinking you want to err on the safe side and steer clear of genetically altered salmon, you might not have much of a choice in avoiding it — AquaBounty won't be required by the FDA to label the salmon as genetically altered. But you can opt for Wild Caught salmon, which is the healthier alternative to farm caught anyway. In fact, the FDA's approval was based on comparing AquaBounty's product to farmed salmon, not wild salmon, says dietitian Ashley Koff. "The nutritional profile of farmed and wild salmon can be varied. So to say [engineered] salmon is nutritionally the same because they can be fed supplemental nutrients to get the same profile as another farmed salmon is misleading."

She adds that the long-term human impact of eating GE salmon is unknown. "The question will be if their proteins and fats — altered to grow at a unnaturally rapid pace and to be larger will have negative impact on human hormones, resulting in inflammation and cellular growth such as tumors or fat cells," she says.

Alaska senators have already introduced a bill that would require genetically altered salmon to be labeled as such, and the general public can submit a comment to the FDA regarding labeling the fish now.

 
What We Know About Genetically Engineered Salmon: A Cheat Sheet

  • The FDA finds AquaBounty's genetically engineered fish as safe as everyday salmon.
  • By everyday, they mean other farmed salmon.
  • Environmental impacts of the fish in the wild, if it were to escape, are a big unknown.
  • Wild salmon is still the healthier choice.
  • The FDA is now taking comments on their approval.