By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

When last we left the Genetically Modified or Engineered (GE) salmon, he was swimming upstream hard, headed for the government stamp of approval needed before appearing in your grocery store.

A GE Salmon dwarfs a regular Atlantic salmon of the same age.

A GE Salmon dwarfs a regular Atlantic salmon of the same age.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had given the fish its preliminary nod of approval on Dec. 21, 2012, after determining that the proposed GE salmon would have “no significant impact” on the U.S.. The fish would be farmed in Canada and Panama, posing no disruption to American resources, and would be safe to eat, the FDA wrote.

“With respect to food safety, FDA has concluded that food from AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from triploid AquAdvantage Salmon.”

The finding of safety was not surprising. The FDA has for years approved GE foods — corn, soybeans, alfalfa — deeming them to be “substantially” the same as their unmodified cousins.

This “Finding of No Significant Impact,” known by the fun government acronym FONSI, cleared the path to market for the transgenic fish, an Atlantic salmon injected with genes from a Pacific Salmon to make it grow twice as fast and big as normal.

Developed by the Massachusetts firm AquaBounty Technologies , which aims to make more salmon available in a world of dwindling natural fisheries, the “AquAdvantage Salmon” would be the first GE animal to be sold to the public.

And so the clock began ticking on the requisite 60-day public comment period, which could conceivably have ended quietly, as some comment periods do.

Except that didn’t happen. On the heels of the GE salmon, dubbed a “Frankenfish” by a skeptical public, was a wave of public angst.

Public worried about GE Salmon

By Feb. 22, 11,465 people had lodged comments, many expressing vehement opposition to the GE salmon. An FDA spokeswoman declined to say whether that was a lot of comment. (You be the judge.)

After that, the FDA extended the comment period through April 26, 2013. (See below for details on how to comment on the AquAdvantage salmon.)

A look at the first 100 comments posted at reveals that the majority of those writing are worried about the edibility, safety and environmental consequences of GE salmon. Here’s a sampling:

  • Our experience as a nation in utilizing genetically engineered food plants has shown us that it is not possible to “secure” genetic material once it is utilized in a natural environment. Genetic drift occurs and, invariably, the genetically engineered genes show up in natural populations… (Joseph Donohue)
  • Please do not allow genetically engineered Salmon into our food supply until it has been sufficiently tested!!!!!! (Jeffrey Coulter)
  • This presents an ethical and environmental risk and should not be released without much broader study. If this is approved, many people, including myself, will be forced to stop eating salmon altogether to avoid the risks imposed unless it is clearly labeled… it should not be called a salmon but given another name so that people who would like to consume natural, god-given foods, can avoid this man-made monstrosity. Please do your jobs and protect The People rather than the interests of the corporations that fund our leaders! (Jill Jenkins)
  • Do not let this pass please, it will be just as bad a Bovine Growth Hormone injected in the cows. These fish grow twice as fast as regular wild fish, What else have they altered with the DNA that’s important to know, but we will be kept in the dark just like the gas companies not disclosing the chemicals used in hydrofracking. This is just not normal. I won’t even buy farm raised.We should not be playing with genetically modified organisms with food in the first place, but big corporations like to control the food supply…If these companies could lessen toxins in our world, wild fish would be thriving much easier..Thank you, (Judy Nelli)
  • I already have health issues related to genetically modified food. Please stop this insanity of playing god with our food. It is the building blocks for our bodies. We all need to learn to grow more of our own foods. Mass production of food is spawning problems for people and the ecosystem…. (Andrea Louis-Visser)
  • As a US citizen that eats fish, I am extremely concerned about the lack of independent, scientific studies that the fish have undergone. I do not want to be a scientific experiment, understanding there has not been enough independent studies on it (let alone it being labeled), I will therefore stop eating ALL salmon if this GE salmon is approved. It’s disturbing how the US government takes the “prove it’s not good” to this GM technology, meanwhile all other countries take the “prove it’s good” methodology. The GM ingredients in our food certainly make it difficult to eat how our grandparents ate. Those that are not informed ARE the long-term study for the GM junk. Please slow down and don’t ruin for us! (Sara V. Hadden)

There was one pro-GE salmon commenter among the first 100 commenting. Don R. Nicholson said simply:  “I support accepting genetically altered salmon for human consumption. Future growth of seafood production is only possible thru technology to support farmed product. I am looking forward to feasting on affordable farmed Atlantic salmon. Thank
you for the opportunity to comment.”

The dam-burst of comment coincides with cresting public concern about GE foods in general, as evidenced by the massive campaign in California in 2012 to win labeling for GE foods. That effort was defeated after Monsanto and other biotech firms spent millions to squelch it. But new labeling campaigns have already sprung up in other states, including Washington where a labeling bill (I-522) is pending in the legislature.

One concern that keeps surfacing is that the the US government does not perform any independent testing on engineered food stuffs, and for many, that makes this GE salmon seem a bridge too far.

A GE-salmon swimming  upstream

Groups such as The Center for Food Safety  and Food Democracy consider the FDA’s reliance industry tests to be a shaky foundation for deciding the safety of newly created foods. The FDA argues that its review of tests done by biotech firms is sufficient, and some defenders of the government’s methods have additionally argued that it would not be in biotech’s interests to produce a harmful product.

The backdrop of past GE-food approvals provides little consolation. The effects of humans of GE foods approved in the US remain largely untested by independent scientists. Patents prevent outside groups from accessing transgenic material for independent study. And a clear look at human outcomes requires years of careful research.

And so the two sides continue their stand-off, with the FDA saying GE foods are essentially the same as non-GE foods, and the critics arguing that nothing’s been proven.

Non GMO Label

The Non GMO Project label helps consumers find products that are free of bio-tinkering.

Food safety groups have raised questions about whether the GE salmon could promote allergies, an emerging worry with other GE foods, and raise human cancer risks by promoting higher levels of a certain growth hormone in the human consumer There’s really no hard evidence showing or disproving this concern.

The U.S. FDA does stand alone, well, with Canada, in dismissing the need for labeling. Dozens of developed and smaller nations, 61 in fact, have taken a precautionary stance and require that GE foods be labeled, and 50 nations impose restrictions or bans on them, according to

But not everyone views the AquaAdvantage salmon created (manufactured?) by AquaBounty as sinister.

The company portrays the fish as a safe and sustainable food supply solution because the fish that grows quickly and requires less feed. The specimens would all be sterile females confined to aquaculture tanks, a tidy, efficient way to create food, according to AquaBounty.

For its part, the FDA has promised ongoing regulatory oversight for “as long as it is produced and marketed.” Egg production would only be allowed at one facility on Prince Edward Island and all other operations, (“grow out” and packaging) would be confined to Panama. Chances that the transgenic fish would escape into the wild would be “extremely remote,” the agency reported in its preliminary draft, approved on May 4, 2012.

Environmental groups, perhaps tired of being force-fed altered food products (like the pesticide GE corn and soybeans that dominant the market and contaminate organic fields) remain unswayed.

The salmon’s safety as food is unproven, and without labeling American consumers would be in the dark about which salmon is GMO and non-GMO, they protest.

Some civil libertarians have joined the backlash, arguing that failure to label the salmon and other GE products violates consumers’ rights to opt out of a biotech-engineered meal.

This secondary complaint has resonated even with the U.S. Senate. Members in the West Coast wild salmon-fishing states, which could suffer economically when the “Franken-salmon” hits the fish counter, took time during recent budget discussions to pass an amendment favoring labeling of GE fish.

This is a relatively safe stance to take. Polls typically show the public favors the labeling of GE foods, despite the November 2012 defeat of California’s Prop 37, which would have mandated labeling. (Prop 37 advocates say the measure sank when biotech giants flooded the airwaves with anti-37 ads.)

The GE battle lines continue to shift and that portends more debate, if not a stalmate for our salmon.

During the California fight, many grocery groups sided with the biotech firms. Now, however, some major food retailers have drawn a line in the sand over GE salmon.

Last week, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Aldi and others, representing 2,000 groceries nationwide, declared they would not sell the genetically modified salmon.  Whole Foods Market spokeswoman Jennifer Marples explained:

“We’ve stated publicly for years that our quality standards prohibit the use or sale of genetically modified or cloned seafood. We believe all farmed animals – whether raised on land or in water, should be from breeding programs designed to promote their welfare rather than developed solely on production or economic outcomes.”

The grocery chain’s Aquaculture webpage further explains that Whole Foods is fine with farmed fish, as long as the producers do not use antibiotics, growth hormones or GE or cloned fish.

Whole Foods took another step this month, declaring that by 2018 all the food on its shelves will be labeled to show if it contains GMOs. That’s a long time in the future, and it has left some skeptical about whether WF’s commitment will hold.Arguing for commitment: The store already sells 3,000 Non-GMO Project-verified foods.

Whole Foods may find that its pro-labeling stance actually makes some aspects of its operations easier. It satisfies American shoppers who want GMO disclosure and also customers abroad already accustomed to GMO labeling. Whole Foods has seven stores in the UK, which mandates labels.

Smaller, but similarly bent Trader Joe’s also has begun catering to shoppers who want non-GMO foods, pledging in December that all of its house-labeled Trader Joe and Trader Ming products would be GMO-free.

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