By STAN MADDUX
ALBANY, Ind. — Salmon that grow twice as fast through genetic engineering (GE or GMO) will be raised in the United States for the first time as food, at an Indiana fish farm.
The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on March 8 lifted the final hurdle that kept AquaBounty Technologies from moving forward with plans to raise GE salmon from a conventional fish farm it purchased in 2017 near Albany.
The fish farm 75 miles northeast of Indianapolis underwent millions of dollars in improvements to raise the salmon. The FDA ruled in 2015 the fish were safe for human consumption, but debates over labeling and other requirements until now kept AquaBounty from importing GE salmon eggs from Canada to its Indiana hatchery.
The Massachusetts-based company has raised GE salmon at Prince Edward Island north of Nova Scotia for more than two years and also has a demonstration facility in Panama. Final clearance was given when the FDA removed an import alert that kept the eggs from coming into the U.S.
The labeling of GE salmon will follow guidelines the USDA established for bioengineered foods under a 2016 order from Congress. When those guidelines last year went into the books, FDA was relieved of its authority over labeling of GMO foods and lifted the import alert, said outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
"FDA's actions will allow for production and sale to begin here in the U.S., bringing opportunity for investment in rural America, creating American jobs while also reducing dependence on seafood imports," AquaBounty Technologies stated.
Sylvia Wulf, AquaBounty CEO, said the process of bringing those eggs to the Indiana facility to grow will begin right away. A growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon is inserted into the Atlantic salmon, allowing the recipient fish to reach market weight in 18 months, or about twice as fast as the conventional fish.
According to AquaBounty, the hope is that FDA approval of its GE salmon-raising facilities will come soon enough for its first commercially raised product in the U.S. to be available to consumers by 2020.
FDA’s decision does not sit well with skeptics about the safety of eating GE salmon, or residents of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska where salmon caught in the wild is a billion-dollar industry. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski filed legislation that blocked GMO salmon from being raised in the U.S. until government labeling requirements were approved.
In a statement, the Republican said she still has “serious concerns” about splicing the DNA from two species to produce a “marketable fish.” She also thinks some consumers might not realize what they’re buying under labeling guidelines she claimed do not make clear enough that GE salmon and other foods are bioengineered.
“For the FDA to lift an import ban on ‘Frankenfish’ without requiring clear labeling to show that these products are genetically engineered is a disservice to consumers and a blow to Alaska’s hard-working fishing communities,” said the United Fishermen of Alaska in a statement.
Gottlieb tried easing fears about consuming such products. “Advancements in the dynamic field of biotechnology are bringing about the development of innovative new food products,” he said.
“At the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, we’re committed to helping food developers bring biotechnology innovations to market, while at the same time providing consumers with confidence that foods available for purchase in the U.S., whether developed using traditional breeding techniques or biotechnology, meet the FDA’s high safety standards.”
According to AquaBounty, the genetic process for speeding up the growth of salmon was developed in the 1980s. The procedure also underwent extensive scientific reviews in the U.S. and Canada before earning the endorsement of both countries.
The GE salmon will be raised in a controlled environment that doesn’t carry the risks of pollutants and other contaminants to fish raised in the wild, according to AquaBounty officials. Waste will be removed from holding tanks while recycling more than 95 percent of the water.
FDA also ruled the facility would not pose a significant risk to the environment.