Call them “frankenfish,” but don’t look for genetically engineered salmon at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.
Several major grocery chains, including Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Whole Foods, regional stores like March Supermarkets and PCC Natural Markets, as well as some co-ops are joining the Campaign for Genetically Engineered (GE)-Free Seafood, a coalition of retailers and consumer groups, that opposes the sale of genetically modified fish. The newly added chains represent around 2000 stores nationwide that won’t buy fish that has been genetically bred by man.
The decision comes as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers approving the first genetically-engineered food, a salmon that is modified to grow more quickly than its natural cousins, for the U.S. market. In December, the FDA determined that the GE salmon was unlikely to cause harm to the environment, which put the fish one step closer to swimming onto fish counters.
In a July 2011 cover story, TIME writer Bryan Walsh wrote about AquaBounty’s “AquAdvantage” salmon, called by those who oppose genetically modified (GMO) foods as a “Frankenfish,” and explained its appeal:
AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon contains a gene from the chinook salmon, a larger cousin that cruises colder waters in the north. That gene keeps a vital growth hormone activated rather than shutting it down after a certain point, enabling the AquAdvantage salmon to grow more quickly — up to twice as fast as a conventional Atlantic salmon, according to AquaBounty. Such speed has obvious economic benefits for producers, enough that it could possibly make farming of salmon much more economically viable in the U.S. (Nearly all of the farmed salmon consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad, in part because costs tend to be lower.) “We’re loading up 747s from Chile full of farmed salmon and flying them to North America with a huge carbon footprint,” says Ronald Stotish, AquaBounty’s CEO. “With this we could grow salmon in land-based systems in the U.S., raising fresh seafood close to where it’s needed.”
Developing a species of fish can have lasting benefits for the environment as far as sustainability, as well as the economy, these groups argue. However, not everyone is on board. The debate over anything that is genetically modified, be it fish or produce, is always heated. In November, California failed to pass Prop 37—commonly known as the “Right To Know” initiative that would have required labeling for genetically modified foods. Twelve years ago, the European Union (EU) placed a moratorium on growing genetically modified crops amid protests from consumers and growers that interfering with the genetic pool of staple crops could have dire consequences, not just for the ecology but for human health as well. The data isn’t as clear on these arguments, but the public outcry was enough to make GMO foods a sensitive topic. In 2010, the EU approved the first GMO crop, for potatoes, but after lackluster support from farmers and consumers, BASF, the German biotech company that engineered the spud, dropped its program in February 2013.
“Consumers Union has serious concerns about the safety of the first genetically engineered fish, a salmon engineered to grow to maturity twice as fast as wild salmon,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, in a statement. “FDA decided based on data from just six fish that there was no increased risk to people with fish allergies. However, even these meager data suggest that these fish show increased allergic potential.”
Even as the potential health consequences of eating GMO foods continues to be debated, consumers seem to find seafood that’s been modified…fishy. In a 2010 poll conducted by a political strategy research firm, 91% of surveyed Americans said the FDA should not allow genetically engineered seafood into the market. The opposition extends to the labeling of these products; if approved, the FDA is not likely to require the genetically modified salmon to be labeled as such. Currently, neither the U.S. nor Canada have mandatory identification of genetically modified products.
That doesn’t mean that individual retailers won’t be informing their consumers of when foods have been genetically altered. This month, Whole Foods Market announced it will require its suppliers to label products containing GMO ingredients. “We will work in collaboration with them as they transition to sourcing non-GMO ingredients or to clearly labeling products with ingredients containing GMOs,” the grocery store said in its announcement.
The grocery chain says the high prevalence of GMOs and lack of labeling makes it very hard for stores to source non-GMO products and for customers to purchase non-GMO products. However, the demand is there, and Whole Foods says its Non-GMO™ Project verified products are “among the fastest growing sellers in our non-perishable grocery category.”
(MORE: Making Sense of Food Labels)
That may not bode well for the AquaBounty salmon, should it make it to market. According to the New York Times, AquaBounty’s cash flow has been dwindling. But last Friday, shareholders approved the sale of new shares worth $6 million, which the company says will sustain their production for at least another year. The FDA extended the comment period, during which the public can voice their opinions about whether the agency should approve AquAdvantage Salmon, to April 26.