Salmon first GMO animal OK'd for sale

Nov 23, 2015

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first genetically modified animal product as safe for sale and consumption in the U.S. After years of review, regulators approved a GMO variety of Atlantic salmon, which was developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technology. The salmon is raised in inland fish farm pools to prevent genetic drift to wild salmon. The salmon carries inserted genes from two other fish — Chinook salmon and ocean pout — that make the salmon grow faster than conventional salmon.

The FDA has also ruled — as it has for other GMO foods, like corn and soybeans — that the GMO salmon does not need to be labeled as such by AquaBounty,  grocery stores, restaurants and other outlets where it is sold and served to consumers.

The new salmon won’t be on the market immediately — AquaBounty needs to ramp up commercial production, initially in Panama. Once it does hit the market, it will make up only a tiny fraction of the imported farmed Atlantic salmon Americans consume.

And marketing will be a challenge once it is available. Only 37 percent of U.S. adults think GMO foods are safe, according to a survey by Pew Research. Many consumers are willing to pay a premium for brands voluntarily labeled "non-GMO." And Kelly Weikel, a food industry analyst at Technomic, said consumer reception and trust of GMO foods has, if anything, been declining in recent years, as Americans’ taste for food that is "unadulterated," "without additives" and "natural" rises.

Dominique Brossard, who studies science and communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said: “People have a tendency to equate the (GMO) technology with something that they may not like — big monopoly from corporations and very modern agriculture.” 

Brossard said "modern agriculture" could be used as a marketing tool to improve GMO’s image among consumers — by pushing the idea of science healing the environment and feeding the planet.

“That it’s more sustainable, since we are already overfishing the oceans,” Brossard said. “It could be salmon that’s much more affordable.”

Animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam at UC Davis studies GMO food and animals, and said her research shows they might be more disease-resistant than non-GMO breeds, which could in turn reduce the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. She said that would benefit animal and human health. Her marketing message: stay away from the details of genetic science as much as possible.

“I think it does sound kind of frightening to be moving a gene from one species to another,” Van Eenennaam said. “We spend a lot of time talking about the technology rather than how it might benefit people and the planet.”

But there is a big problem with telling a positive story about GMO foods — inside in-store ads, or on packaging. There is no easy way for consumers to know a food is genetically engineered. The FDA has consistently rejected calls to require food makers to label GMO as fresh produce, and processed foods with GMO ingredients. There is significant support in Congress to ban states from mandating labeling on their own, as Vermont has done. And the food industry has lobbied hard against mandatory labeling. Industry representatives claim the food is safe for human consumption, so labeling is unnecessary; they also worry that labeling will put people off their gene-enhanced corn, soybeans — and salmon, eventually.