Five Things to Know About the Genetically Engineered Salmon Approved by the FDA

Sustainable seafood or “Frankenfish”?

Don Mason

Is AquAdvantage a super salmon or a "Frankenfish"? For years, controversy has swirled around a new, fast-growing fish, which has been engineered with chromosomes from an Atlantic salmon, a growth hormone from Chinook salmon, and a gene from the eel-like ocean pout.

Today, questions about whether the fish will ever make it to American plates were answered when the FDA announced that it has approved the fish for consumption and sale in the United States. Here’s what you should know about the fish:

This Isn’t Just Any Salmon

What’s the big deal about the salmon? The key word here is "big"—this fish grows more quickly and to a larger size than conventional salmon. Proponents claim that since the salmon can be raised indoors, it will have a smaller environmental footprint and save carbon due to lower transportation costs.

For now, writes Bloomberg’s Benjamin Borrell, the salmon is being grown in Panama, and eggs are produced in Canada. But AquaBound, which produces the salmon, says in a release that the fish could help establish "a continuous supply of fresh, safe, traceable and sustainable" fish to communities in the United States using local production.

There Is a Lot in a Name—and a Label 

The FDA calls the salmon "genetically engineered," while its producer prefers calling it "genetically enhanced." However, the salmon is being portrayed in many news outlets as a genetically modified organism, or GMO.

There’s a difference, says Ryan Haas of Oregon Public Broadcasting: The terms are not interchangeable. Haas writes that GMO is too broad of a category for such foods, since even Mother Nature can genetically modify an organism. The FDA claims that the term "genetically engineered" is more precise since it refers to "genetic modification practices that utilize modern biotechnology."

It’s likely that the words "genetically engineered" will be used on labels for the fish—that is, if they are labeled at all.

The Washington Post’s Tamar Haspel reports that the FDA will not require labeling. This position is consistent with their stance on other genetically engineered foods, such as corn and soybeans. However, in its release about the fish, the FDA also states that it is seeking comment on voluntary labeling guidelines for food from genetically engineered sources.

The Salmon Is the United States’ First Genetically Engineered Animal Approved by the FDA—but There May Be More to Come

This approval is the first of its kind in the United States, but other genetically modified animals may follow. The FDA is currently reviewing genetically engineered mosquitoes produced by Oxitec. Millions of the mosquitoes, which were designed to combat illnesses such as dengue and chikungunya, are already in the Cayman Islands, Panama, Malaysia and Brazil. A proposed field trial in Key Haven, Florida is the subject of intense debate.

It Took 20 Years to Gain FDA Approval for the Salmon 

Haspel writes that the approval process for the salmon was long and arduous, and that it indicates "many political and scientific obstacles" that went into its approval. In a release about the approval, the FDA characterizes the process as an “exhaustive and rigorous scientific review” that included evaluating both existing studies and data from AquaBounty Technologies, the company that developed the fish.

After clearing so many regulatory hurdles, AquaBounty must still wait before their salmon hits store shelves. The New York Times’ Andrew Pollack writes that it could take years to raise enough fish to bring the salmon to market.

The Food’s Safety Isn’t Being Widely Contested—but Its Environmental Impact Is

"The food is safe to eat," said the director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine in the agency’s release. As SmartNews reported in 2012, public health experts seem to agree. But the jury’s out when it comes to the impact that the new Frankenfish may have on the environment.

The salmon is currently at the center of a court battle related to its egg production facility in Canada. VICE’s Wyatt Marshall reports that the lawsuit has been brought by environmental groups who worry that if the salmon escape the Prince Edward Island facility, they could become an invasive species and breed with other species. Similar concerns have also been expressed about the Panama facility.

Yet AquaBounty maintains that safeguards like contained facilities and the fact that the consumable fish are all sterile females will prevent these environmental impacts. And the FDA agrees: It calls both worst-case scenarios "unlikely."

With today’s news, the public will doubtless continue to express its concerns about the salmon. But perhaps the biggest doubt of all is whether it will be widely available: Retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joes have already announced that they won’t be carrying the fish. 

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