Canada OK’s GE salmon; Senate panel requires labeling

A fast-growing, genetically-engineered salmon got Canada’s stamp of approval on May 19, the same day a U.S. Senate Appropriations committee approved language that requires the salmon be labeled as “genetically modified” in the U.S.

Called AquAdvantage, the genetically-engineered fish has met massive resistance from the U.S. commercial fishing industry and politicians from fishing states.

AquAdvantage grows to marketable size in half the time as conventional farmed salmon, and a fraction of the time and effort to harvest wild salmon. AquaBounty splices of Atlantic salmon and chinook salmon with a continual growth hormone from ocean pout, meaning it grows twice as fast.

The U.S. still won’t see the new fast-growing fish on market shelves in the next year, both by federal design and by marketing needs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration passed ban on the import of genetically engineered fish in January, only to apply to fiscal year 2016.

The ban itself is symbolic, not functional; AquaBounty said its product won’t be market ready for another year anyway.

AquAdvantage is the first genetically-engineered animal product to be approved for human consumption, though the approval has taken the better part of a decade. AquaBounty has sought U.S. and Canadian approval for the product since 1996. Backlash from anti-GMO groups and the Alaska congressional delegation in particular has slowed the process.

Despite fears of health and environmental impacts, however, both governments said in the last year that the fish is safe for humans to eat.

The FDA approved AquAdvantage in February 2015, saying it has “no substantial nutritional difference” from wild or conventional farmed fish.

Canada Health and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, that nation’s equivalent to the FDA, announced on May 19 that AquaBounty’s product is safe for human consumption.

Canada has not yet required that the product be labeled, unlike the U.S. After AquAdvantage’s FDA approval, U.S. officials from fishing states, as well as environmental groups, have wrestled to force vendors to label the product as genetically engineered.

On May 19, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations bill, sending it to the full Senate for consideration, currently unscheduled.

Among other provisions, the bill includes language to make vendors prominently include “genetically-engineered” in the product’s market name.

“The acceptable market name of any salmon that is genetically engineered shall include the words ’genetically engineered’ or ‘GE’ prior to the existing acceptable market name,” reads the provision.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, added the language.

Murkowski has doggedly pursued labeling mandates after a drawn-out fight with the FDA, which currently makes GE labeling voluntary. Murkowski had held the nomination of Dr. Richard Califf as FDA chief until the FDA agreed to labeling mandates.

Murkowski attributes a list of problems to what she and other critics have dubbed “Frankenfish.” She said leaving the fish unlabeled would harm Alaska’s reputation and economy and the well being of Americans at large.

“Genetically engineered salmon pose a serious threat to the livelihoods of fisherman and the health and well-being of Americans across the nation,” said Murkowski in a statement. “Alaska is known around the world for our sustainably-caught, wild, delicious seafood. Requiring labeling of genetically engineered salmon helps us to maintain Alaska’s gold-standard reputation for years to come, and protects consumers.” 

Alaska’s state legislators also heavily oppose the product. In a series of releases in January, they expressed doubt over scientific basis of the FDA’s decision and called for a mandatory labeling requirement.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/26/2016 - 9:23am