Reg­u­la­tions slow GMO salmon sales in U.S., but Cana­di­ans are eat­ing tons

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JENNA GAL­LE­GOS jenna.gal­le­gos@wash­post.com

Ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied salmon have been ap­proved for sale in the United States, but la­bel­ing com­pli­ca­tions have pre­vented the fish from com­ing to mar­ket. In Canada, how­ever, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased Fri­day by the com­pany AquaBounty, five tons of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied salmon filets have been sold so far.

Eric Haller­man, an ex­pert in fish­eries and fish ge­net­ics at Vir­ginia Tech who is not af­fil­i­ated with the com­pany, pre­dicts that many more ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied fish and other an­i­mals will ap­pear mar­ket shelves around the world in the fu­ture.

The AquaBounty salmon, called AquAd­van­tage, is an At­lantic salmon that con­tains a growth hor­mone gene from a Chi­nook salmon. In the wild, salmon pro­duce the hor­mone only when the con­di­tions are right for rapid growth. In the AquAd­van­tage salmon, a reg­u­la­tory switch from an ocean pout gene makes the fish pro­duce growth hor­mone all the time, so the AquAd­van­tage salmon grow rapidly through­out the year.

These fish, which are raised in fish farms, grow four to six times faster than other At­lantic salmon early in life, Haller­man said, and they reach mar­ket weight twice as fast. This short­ens the to­tal pro­duc­tion time from three years to a year and a half, and re­duces the amount of feed they con­sume by 10 per­cent.

Fish farms can be estab­lished on land in tanks, or in the ocean in float­ing net en­clo­sures. AquaBounty orig­i­nally in­tended to pro­duce the ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied eggs and sell them to com­mer­cial fish­eries, which would grow the fish pri­mar­ily in float­ing nets, Haller­man said. He was in­volved in as­sess­ing the po­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of this plan and raised con­cerns about it.

The salmon eggs AquaBounty pro­duces are all fe­male, and their num­ber of chro­mo­somes has been mod­i­fied to make them ster­ile, like seed­less wa­ter­mel­ons. How­ever, this process is not 100 per­cent suc­cess­ful, and Haller­man and oth­ers wor­ried about the po­ten­tial for these fast­grow­ing salmon to es­cape and mix with wild pop­u­la­tions. Af­ter rais­ing these con­cerns with AquaBounty, the com­pany agreed to ad­dress them, and “they’ve stood by their word,” Haller­man said.

AquAd­van­tage salmon eggs are pro­duced in a land-based re­search fa­cil­ity on Prince Ed­ward Is­land. If the eggs were to es­cape the fa­cil­ity, they would find them­selves in salt wa­ter, where reg­u­la­tors pre­dict they would be un­able to sur­vive. (Salmon hatch and de­velop in fresh wa­ter, then swim to salt wa­ter to spend most of their adult­hood.) The eggs are then shipped to a land-based aqua­cul­ture fa­cil­ity in Panama, thou­sands of miles from the near­est At­lantic salmon pop­u­la­tion, where they grow to mar­ket weight. The U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion and En­vi­ron­ment Canada con­ducted en­vi­ron­men­tal analy­ses in light of these pre­cau­tions and gave the fish the go-ahead.

Last month, AquaBounty purchased a fish farm­ing fa­cil­ity in In­di­ana. The com­pany plans to be­gin sales in the United States in the sec­ond half of 2019, Dave Con­ley, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, told The Wash­ing­ton Post in an email. When reg­u­la­tions in the United States will per­mit the sale of the salmon re­mains un­clear.

The FDA ap­proved the salmon in Novem­ber 2015, and Health Canada and the Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency fol­lowed in May 2016. Sales be­gan in Canada in 2017, Con­ley said. Be­cause Health Canada con­cluded that these salmon are “as safe and nu­tri­tious for hu­mans and live­stock as con­ven­tional salmon,” la­bel­ing was op­tional and left up to the dis­cre­tion of the gro­cers who dis­trib­uted the filets.

In the United States, the reg­u­la­tory land­scape is less straight­for­ward. When it comes to GMO foods, reg­u­la­tors “found ex­ist­ing laws and stretched out the scope of those laws to cover biotech­nol­ogy prod­ucts,” Haller­man said, “and it’s awk­ward.”

In some other coun­tries, such as Aus­tralia, new acts were drawn up specif­i­cally to cover biotech prod­ucts. In the United States, square pegs were shoved into round holes. For ex­am­ple, be­cause many ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied plants are gen­er­ated us­ing a mod­i­fied ver­sion of a bac­terium that can be an agri­cul­tural pest, these plants are reg­u­lated as plant pests. Ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied an­i­mals are reg­u­lated as drugs, which is why the FDA is re­spon­si­ble.

That could help to ex­plain why these salmon, which were first de­vel­oped in 1989, are just now reach­ing the mar­ket­place. De­spite the 2015 ap­proval, the salmon still hasn’t hit U.S. shelves be­cause of a sec­tion in the con­gres­sional spend­ing bill, which re­quires that the FDA fi­nal­ize guid­ance re­lated to la­bel­ing be­fore im­ports can be­gin.

The National Bio­engi­neered Food Dis­clo­sure Stan­dard, signed into law in 2016, charges the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment, which reg­u­lates most meat and fish, with de­vel­op­ing a national manda­tory stan­dard for dis­clos­ing the pres­ence of bio­engi­neered ma­te­rial in food by July 2018. But it is un­clear whether the FDA will align its la­bel­ing guid­ance with the USDA’s. Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the de­bate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (RAlaska) this month in­tro­duced a bill that would re­quire the salmon to in­clude the la­bel “ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered.”

In the meantime, Haller­man said there are sev­eral ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied an­i­mals that have been pro­duced and are wait­ing for the salmon to carve their way through the reg­u­la­tory land­scape. In ad­di­tion to other fish, these in­clude cows and goats that pro­duce nu­tri­tive com­pounds in their milk, dis­ease-re­sis­tant live­stock, mosquitoes that die be­fore breed­ing, and more.

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