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Genetically engineered salmon on your plate without your knowledge

In a survey of 800 Americans, 89% said they were in favor of mandatory labels on foods that have been genetically engineered or contain genetically engineered ingredients. When asked whether they’d rather have genetically modified organism labels printed on food packages or in the form of a bar code that could be scanned with a smartphone, 88% said they preferred printed labels.1

Yet, in a facility in Albany, Indiana, eggs intended to grow the first GE salmon for human consumption in the U.S. arrived in May 2019. AquaBounty, the company that created the so-called “frankenfish,” plans to begin harvesting the GE salmon in late 2020.2 When it arrives in supermarkets and restaurants, however, it may be hard to decipher whether the salmon you’re eating is GE or not.

AquaBounty GE salmon to be labeled ‘bioengineered’ — but not until 2022

Opinion polls from a few years ago suggest most Americans don’t want to eat GE fish,3 but the labeling for AquaBounty’s salmon, which is trademarked “aquadvantage,” will make it hard for Americans to avoid it. The USDA included AquaBounty’s salmon on a list of foods that must be labeled “bioengineered” (BE) under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. According to the USDA:

“The Standard defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA) techniques and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

However, while the disclosure regulation for “bioengineered” foods may start to be implemented as early as 2019 for some products, it doesn’t become mandatory until January 1, 2022. Thus, AquaBounty can release its GE salmon initially without even disclosing that it’s bioengineered — a term that will be confusing for many people who are looking instead for the more familiar GMO or GE label.

Adding even more smoke and mirrors, the regulation allows the disclosure to be electronic or digital in nature, such as in the form of a quick response, or QR, code that must be scanned with a cellphone to get the information and “instructions to ‘Scan here for more food information’ or similar language, and include a phone number.”4

In 2016, a survey of 1,011 U.S. adults by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the department of human ecology at Rutgers University, found 21% of respondents said “it is not too likely” that they would scan a QR code to find out whether a product was GE and 38 percent said that “it is not likely at all” that they would do so.5

Restaurants won’t have to disclose GE salmon

Not only is the term bioengineering confusing, and any QR codes used for disclosure likely to go unscanned by many, but food served in restaurants or “similar retail food establishments” is exempt from the labeling standard. This means that restaurants, cafeterias and even salad bars that sell food within a retail establishment don’t have to disclose to consumers if they’re serving GE salmon.6

“It’s their customer, not ours,” Sylvia Wulf, AquaBounty’s CEO, told The Associated Press,7 in a surprisingly flippant comment. You could certainly ask the restaurant or foodservice location directly if the salmon on their menu is genetically engineered, but you’re at their mercy to disclose it.

Caleb Churchill, a chef and owner of a restaurant near AquaBounty’s Indiana facility, told NPR, “I think a lot of people that are chefs will entertain it but be very cautious about putting it on their menu. You know, we’re the middleman, I think, is the way you got to kind of look at it.”8

However, the news outlet also quoted another restaurant owner in Indiana, Kirsten Serrano, who said she’s opposed to the GE fish. “I definitely want to say no to GMOs,” she said. “I think that, you know, local is fantastic. The farm-to-table movement is fantastic. You know, we are a farm-to-table restaurant. But local doesn’t trump everything. You know, you still need to look at sourcing and quality.”9

AquaBounty has marketed its GE salmon as a type of local food that’s “built closer to consumers to reduce the need for energy-intensive air freight shipping and transportation,”10 but there are serious concerns with growing GE fish.

GE salmon grow twice as fast as wild salmon

The idea for AquaBounty’s GE salmon came from physiologist Garth Fletcher, who decided to alter Atlantic salmon DNA so they would grow faster. In the PBS video above, Fletcher says, “Because behind every production system is an accountant that says are we making any money, can we produce the fish faster, can we turn the inventory over, type idea.”11 PBS NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson adds:12

“A salmon’s growth hormones are more active during certain times of the year. Fletcher thought, what if he could get the hormones to stay active all the time?

He took DNA from a fish called an ocean pout, which produces a special protein all year long that helps it survive in frigid waters. Fletcher took the DNA that keeps those proteins turned on and running and connected it to a salmon growth hormone gene, which had the effect of keeping the growth hormone on.”

In November 2015, the U.S. FDA approved AquaBounty salmon, which contains the DNA from two other fish, a growth-promoting gene from a Chinook salmon and a “promoter” gene from the eel-like ocean pout.

As Thompson noted, this genetic tweaking results in fish with always-on growth hormone, and because they grow so much faster than other salmon, they also require less food. The GE fish have already been sold and eaten in Canada,13 where the GE fish don’t have to be labeled, but a rider attached to an Alaskan budget bill imposed an import ban, effectively blocking the FDA from allowing GE salmon into the U.S.

The import ban was lifted by the FDA in March 2019, with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stating, “[T]his fish is safe to eat, the genetic construct added to the fish’s genome is safe for the animal, and the manufacturer’s claim that it reaches a growth marker important to the aquaculture industry more rapidly than its non-GE farm-raised Atlantic salmon counterpart is confirmed.14

GE salmon is not the same as wild salmon

In the PBS video, Ron Stotish, AquaBounty’s chief technology officer, makes the statement that the GE salmon is “exactly the same” as nongenetically modified salmon, and uses this as the reasoning for why labeling shouldn’t be required:15

“As a small company, with your first offering, with a limited quantity, there’s a huge risk associated with just putting a label, genetically modified, genetically engineered, on it. If it’s identical to the traditional food, why put a label on it?”

Except, GE salmon isn’t exactly the same as wild salmon. Even Thompson quipped, “But its DNA has been altered.” The fact is, little is known about the health consequences of consuming these altered salmon, as doing so is an unprecedented experiment. But in their issue brief on GE salmon, consumer group Food & Water Watch raised several important points:16

“The limited summaries of data that the FDA has released about the food safety of GE salmon show troubling results. GE salmon exhibited 40 percent higher levels of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1, which has been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers.

Also troublingly, GE salmon exhibited as much as 52 percent higher levels of ‘allergenic potency,’ which indicates possible allergic reactions from consumers.”

There were also concerns that the salmon may have less protein and differences in vitamin, mineral and amino acid levels compared to non-GE salmon which, according to Food & Water Watch, “the FDA did not rigorously investigate.”17

What if GE salmon escape into the environment?

In the video, Stotish touts the GE fish as a way to reduce global carbon footprints due to their “local” nature:18

“If you have a fish that grows a little faster, such as an Aquadvantage that reaches market weight in half the time, you can produce those fish almost anywhere because you can grow them in a land-based aquaculture facility. Closer to consumers.

So you can reduce the transportation cost, you can reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation. So this opens up a whole new opportunity for global salmon production.”

But they pose one of the gravest environmental threats of all should they escape into the environment. While this seems unlikely in the land-locked Indiana facility, the Canadian AquaBounty facility is located across from a river that reaches the Atlantic Ocean. There are filters and “containment barriers” in place to prevent accidental escape, Stotish says, and the fish are microchipped so they can be tracked.

“We’ve been operating for more than 25 years and we’ve never lost a single fish,” Stotish told PBS.19 What if, however, someone — say a disgruntled employee — decides to intentionally release the GE fish into the wild? Most of AquaBounty’s fish are altered to be sterile so they can’t breed with wild salmon.

But the key word is “most.” A small percentage is not sterile, which means they could theoretically breed with wild fish populations, leading to generations of unnaturally fast-growing salmon, with unknown consequences.

PBS also spoke with Sharon Labchuk of the group Earth Action, who spoke out against the risks of GE salmon, “Do we have the right to manipulate the DNA of another living being? And, I don’t agree that that’s something that humans should be able to do.”20

Farmed salmon is no better

While farmed salmon isn’t genetically altered, it’s not a healthier or more sustainable option than GE salmon. One of the major problems is that farmed salmon are typically raised in pens in the ocean, where their excrement and food residues are disrupting local marine life. The potential for escape is also high, and farmed salmon is high in pollutants.21

Even land-based salmon aquaculture is problematic, according to research published in Scientific Reports, which performed an analysis of four salmon aquacultures in Chile.22 The facilities, often described as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) of the sea, pump water from rivers into their hatcheries, then pump it back out to the river once it’s no longer clean.

The researchers found the water is often contaminated with dissolved organic matter (DOM) — a mixture of liquid excrement, food residue and other salmon excretions, along with disinfectants and antibiotics.

The release of DOM into Chile’s rivers is causing significant ramifications for the entire ecosystem. Upstream of the fish farms, the researchers detected higher amounts of natural algae biofilms on rocks, which help to produce oxygen and provide food for organisms that fish later eat.

Downstream, however, biofilms had a greater abundance of bacteria, which use up oxygen and may lead to low-oxygen environments that could threaten many species. The researchers suggested that no additional fish farms should be installed on Chilean rivers, noting, “[R]ivers should not be misused as natural sewage treatment plants.”23

How to avoid GE salmon

If you’re wondering how can you tell whether salmon is wild or farm-raised, the flesh of wild sockeye salmon is bright red, courtesy of its natural astaxanthin content. It’s also very lean, so the fat marks, those white stripes you see in the meat, are very thin. If the fish is pale pink with wide fat marks, the salmon is farmed.

Avoid Atlantic salmon, as typically salmon labeled “Atlantic Salmon” comes from fish farms. To avoid GE salmon, avoid any products labeled “bioengineered” and check any QR codes necessary to find out additional information. If you order salmon in a restaurant and it doesn’t specify that it’s wild-caught, avoid it — or at least ask the restaurant directly whether it’s GMO or not.

Fortunately, more than 80 retailers, including Aldi, Costco, Kroger and Meijer, have policies against selling GE seafood,24 and the more consumers speak out against it, the less likely U.S. stores will be to sell it — and restaurants to serve it.