Is Franken-salmon safe to eat?

The FDA says the world's first genetically modified food animal is, but several American grocery chains have vowed not to stock the engineered fish

It’s called the AquAdvantage salmon, and if Maynard, Massachusetts-based biotech firm AquaBounty gets its way, the world’s first genetically modified food animal will soon be entering our food supply.

The United States Food and Drug Administration approved AquaBounty’s application to sell the fish in the U.S. last December. A coalition of environmental groups in Canada and the U.S. responded to that “irresponsible” decision by launching a legal challenge. The science just isn’t there to prove the AquAdvantage salmon is safe for wild fish stocks or human health, they claim.

While Health Canada mulls its own application to allow consumption of GM salmon, a legal challenge of the approval allowing AquaBounty to produce GM salmon eggs at a facility in Bay Fortune, Prince Edward Island, is making its way through the courts.

AquaBounty plans to fly salmon eggs produced in PEI to Panama, where they would be grown and shipped back to the United States for sale. The company recently applied to expand to another PEI site for raising up to 13,000 conventional salmon at a time to produce the eggs that would be genetically engineered to create the GM version of the fish. 

Canada’s commercial Atlantic salmon fishery is no more. The species is considered endangered in many east coast rivers, but enough fish remain to support an important aboriginal food fishery along with a valuable recreational one.

The little that is known of this new salmon, concocted from Atlantic salmon with genes from the Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout, comes not from independent scientists but largely from research published by the FDA and performed or paid for by AquaBounty. 

The FDA says AquaBounty’s GM salmon is as safe to eat and as nutritious as food from non-GM Atlantic salmon. But critics are especially worried about allergens. They say AquaBounty studies (the company used an unscientific sample size of just six fish) show levels high enough to cause concern and should be redone.

“The company needed to do its allergenicity studies properly so those of us who might be mildly allergic to ordinary salmon don’t die from eating theirs,” says Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

GM salmon do appear to have more skeletal and gill defects and inflammations. Hanson suspects these deformities could leave the salmon more vulnerable to harmful microorganisms, resulting in more frequent antibiotic treatments. AquaBounty rejected this position in an email. 

A company spokesperson did not respond to an emailed question from NOW concerning the suspicion that the GM salmon’s higher daily intake of corn and soy feed could cause more intestinal illness than is suffered by conventional farmed salmon, which could lead to even more antibiotic use, says Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union in New York.

AquaBounty also denies that its data is deficient, but environmentalists are concerned about hormone levels. Tim Schwab, a food researcher with Food & Water Watch in Washington D.C., says the fact that AquaBounty chose testing methods that failed to detect any growth hormone  “really raise[d] eyebrows in the scientific community.” 

Several large American grocery store chains, including Safeway, Costco, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, have vowed not to stock the engineered fish.

While the American approvals process included a 60-day period of public consultation, Canadian consultations on whether to approve AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption are going on behind closed doors. The application for FDA approval specified the use of land-based tank cultivation. But environmentalists are still concerned the fish could escape into the wild, which could endanger existing ocean species of salmon.

“Here we’ve got something that is globally precedent-setting,” says Mark Butler, policy director at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. “It could have an irreversible impact on a keystone species, one that is really important to indigenous people in Canada, and there has been no consultation at all. None.”

Canadian regulators are satisfied AquaBounty has built enough anti-contamination barriers into its facilities to make salmon escape nearly impossible. These include netting around tanks and screens and filters on all water pipes. 

But critics fear the PEI plant, which sits about 36 metres from the ocean, isn’t nearly far enough inland.

The company says it will sterilize the eggs it produces, but the sterilization technique is not effective for up to 5 per cent of the 15 million eggs the facility expects to produce annually. Even sterile escapees could threaten wild fish by out-competing them for food.

Should a mature, fertile fish escape and mate in the wild, the contamination set in motion could be wide-ranging. Atlantic salmon from Maine, for example, have been tagged and caught off Greenland.

“It only needs to happen once for it to be irreversible,” says Butler.

Fish or Foul?

The AquAdvantage salmon: five questions answered 

What is it? 

An Atlantic salmon modified by growth-hormone-regulating and -promoting genes from a Pacific Chinook salmon and an ocean pout.

What’s the result?

Salmon with a tendency to lower jaw deformities, whose always-on growth hormone makes them voracious eaters. 

Is genetic modification necessary?

AquAdvantage salmon take half as much time to grow as conventional salmon (16 to 18 months instead of three years), and therefore reach market faster. Some conventionally bred salmon by Norway’s Salmobreed AS may grow even faster than AquAdvantage, though a company rep says too little data on the AquAdvantage salmon has been released to make a proper comparison

Is it fit for human consumption?

Critics have raised a number of concerns about human health, including the fact that no animal or human feeding trials have been done – or at least none that are known to the public. Questions have also been raised about suspected high allergen and Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) levels the latter are associated with various cancers. The fish have a lower omega-3-to-omega-6 ratio compared to conventional farmed salmon.

What are the environmental concerns?

Escaped fertile GM salmon could mate with wild fish, threatening endangered wild species such as the Atlantic salmon, and out-compete other wild fish for food. | @nowtoronto

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