The FDA Ponders Approval of Genetically Engineered Salmon— Locals are Skeptical

U.S. consumers could be soon be shopping at their local grocery stores, purchasing a fish which was created in a test tube.

AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company is seeking FDA certification for one of their products—AquAdvantage® Salmon—a genetically engineered, or transgenic, Atlantic Salmon.

Before a decision can be made on the application,  the FDA is required to meet certain requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), said Shannon Cameron, a Health Communications Specialist for FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine. There requirements include a finding of no significant impact, FONSI, on the environment and a preliminary decision by the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, along with other public agencies.

“There is no timeline on a decision on the application,” Cameron wrote in an e-mail. “The FDA will first look at all the comments submitted by the public, as well as the suggestions from the panel.”

The FDA met with the VMAC in Maryland to discuss its concerns, the first step in the process towards approval.

“These processes take a lot of time and effort,” said James McKean, VMAC member, panelist, and a professor in Veterinarians Diagnostic & Production Animal Medicine at Iowa State University.

The VMAC advised the FDA to ensure that the gene construction is safe and to do additional work on the commercial basis, McKean said.

Aside from those recommendations, McKean said, the genetically engineered salmon does not appear to be as dangerous as some may think.

“There’s no worry about allergies and no detrimental effects and changes on the meat,” he said. “From a human standpoint there did not seem to be an irregularity.”

One local Store is Already Saying “No,”— Others Want More Information

Even though it has yet to be determined if these “un-natural” fishes will flip their way into local stores— the possibility is being discussed.

“We would not purchase it,” said Chuck Hansen, a meat cutter at the Iowa City New Pioneer Co-op, 22 S. Van Buren St. “Even if the FDA approved it, we wouldn’t.”

The New Pioneer Co-OP, 22 South Van Buren St., purchases fish based on the rankings of the Marine Stewardship Council, MFC. Hansen said most likely the genetically-engineered salmon would be placed on the “void” list.

University of Iowa dining halls, Anne Harkins, the manager of the Burge Marketplace, said they have not discussed if they would purchase the fish, but will if the FDA approves it.

“I think we’d definitely want to discuss it, I know I’d want to know a lot more before I was comfortable offering to customers,” Harkins said.

As for the iconic Iowa-based grocery store, Hy-Vee, they, too, are still unsure.

“Hy-Vee does not have a position on genetically modified salmon at this time. If and when the FDA approves the product for retail sale, we will examine all the information available and determine whether or not to carry it,” said Ruth Comer, Assistant Vice President, Media Relations.

If We Already Eat Genetically Modified Food, What’s Wrong With It Being Salmon?

Despite hesitation from local stores, those who study food ethics and are immersed in the culture have other thoughts.

During the meeting with the VMAC, one concern raised was the issue of labeling.

“Should salmon be labeled or not? We’re already eating genetically produced food. The meat we eat is industrialized meat. Cows are raised on corn, genetically engineered corn,” said UI professor Lauren Rabinovitz who also serves on the UI Food Studies Advisory Board.

The genetically engineered salmon grows more rapidly, allowing it to go to the market faster than wild fish. Essentially, putting more fish on the market faster.

“It’s one tool that food industrialists use to try to adapt producing food so that they can make things quicker, cheaper, and can get more product more quickly,” she said.

Todd Hinegardner, co-owner of Iowa Northstar Fish Hatchery in Montour, Iowa, raises various fish— not including salmon— in his aqua culture ponds and lakes. While his fish aren’t specifically sold for food, he said he wouldn’t mind seeing AquAdvantage® Salmon in stores.

Hinegardner’s only concern, he said, would be if these genetically engineered fish were being placed in natural bodies of water.

“If they are taking these fish and putting them in our lakes and rivers, I would not be in favor of it,” Hinegardner said.

The weight of what could be a historical decision for food consumers nationwide depends on the FDA. However, Rabinovitz said, consumers should be skeptical of the role that the FDA plays as a whole, when it comes to food safety— genetically engineered or not.

When referring to the recent egg recall in Iowa, she asked— “Where was the FDA and why weren’t they enforcing checks?” Rabinovitz mentioned swirling rumors that said farmers were paying FDA officials to look the other way.

“With our whole food supply, there is a lot to be worried about,” Rabinovitz said.

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