It’s been a long, hard swim upstream, but genetically engineered salmon may finally be coming to a US supermarket near you.
On Friday, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that his agency is dropping an import alert that effectively held up the production of genetically engineered salmon in the US. The ruling is a boon to AquaBounty, whose AquAdvantage Salmon eggs can now be imported to the company’s contained grow-out facility in Indiana to be raised into salmon for food.
AquAdvantage Salmon (AAS) is a genetically engineered version of Atlantic salmon, which contains a Chinook growth hormone gene. Compared to standard Atlantic salmon, AAS matures to market size in about 18 months compared to three years. It also requires 20%-25% less feed than regular farmed salmon.
AquaBounty first developed the salmon in 1989 and began seeking regulatory approval within a few years. The FDA began its review in 1995, and after a 20-year review concluded that the fish is safe to eat, the genetic alterations were also safe for the animal, and AquaBounty’s claims about the fish’s growth were accurate. The FDA also assessed the fish’s potential environmental impact and found no significant threat to the environment. Thus, in 2015, AAS became the first animal with an intentional genetic alteration approved for food use in the US.
Then politics happened. In December 2015, Senator Murkowski (who represents Alaska, a state known for its own salmon), successfully inserted a provision in the omnibus appropriations bill that blocked the FDA from introducing GE salmon into the market without special GE salmon labeling guidelines. This effectively directed the FDA to block GE salmon in the U.S. by implementing an import alert.
The alert only applied to AquaBounty, but it had a broad chilling effect on GE food innovation and research funding in the US, with a number of innovators going outside the US to develop their products and markets. AquaBounty and Intrexon (the majority owner of AquaBounty) announced this past December that Argentina exempted its FLT tilapia from GM regulation. Unlike AAS, FLT tilapia does not contain a gene from another fish, hence the non-GMO designation. It has a bigger fillet, grows to market weight faster, and consumes less feed than conventional varieties.