On Friday (March 8), the Food and Drug Administration lifted an import restriction that allowed AquaBounty, a biotech company with facilities in Canada and Panama, to start raising genetically engineered (GMO) salmon eggs in America, effectively clearing the way for the country’s first GMO seafood—and first commercially raised GMO animal—to come to market.

AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon, which has been in development since the 1990s, is already available in Canada. The company’s proprietary breed of fish is modified to contain genes from Chinook salmon and an eel-like creature called an ocean pout, which allows it to grow twice as fast, on less food, than a normal Atlantic salmon.

When FDA approved the fish in 2015, the agency found it had no health or safety issues, and displayed no material or nutritional difference from traditional Atlantic salmon. So why hasn’t the AquAdvantage yet been available at stores in the U.S.?

As is often the case with foods produced by an emerging technology—like, for example, cell-cultured meat—questions around labeling have been a major issue.

comparison of genetically engineered salmon to non-engineered salmonAquabounty

The rapid growth rate of a genetically engineered AquaBounty salmon (left) is obvious when compared to a non-GE salmon (right) of the same age

In 2015, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski filed an appropriations bill rider that blocked FDA from introducing the salmon into the market until the government published labeling guidelines. The threat of competition was one possible motivation: Some fear that these faster-growing fish could hurt wild salmon fishers in the Pacific Northwest, and particularly in Alaska, where salmon is a billion-dollar industry, according to trade group estimates.

While GMO labeling was being negotiated, Murkowski kept pushing. In 2017, she and three other senators introduced legislation specifically to label the AquAdvantage salmon as “genetically engineered,” and to subject it to environmental review. (“There’s a huge difference between ‘Frankenfish’ and the wild, healthy, sustainably-caught, delicious real thing—and I want to make sure folks are aware of that,” she wrote, in a statement, though the bill never went anywhere.) When the USDA released its bioengineered labeling guidance in December, the agency indicated the rule would apply even to products regulated by FDA—including this salmon. With a labeling framework in place, Murkowski’s import ban ended.  Read the article.

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