INDIANAPOLIS – The inaugural harvest of genetically modified salmon began this week when the epidemic delayed the sale of the first such converted animal for human consumption in the United States, company officials said.
Tons of salmon, engineered by biotech company AquaBounty Technologies Inc., will now go to restaurants and away from home dining services — where labeling as genetically engineered is no longer required — in the Midwest and along the East Coast, said company CEO Sylvia Wolf. said.
So far, the only customer to announce the sale of salmon is Samuels & Son Seafood, a Philadelphia-based seafood distributor.
AquaBounty has raised its fast-growing salmon at an indoor aquaculture farm in Albany, Indiana. The fish is genetically modified to grow twice as fast as wild salmon, reaching market size – 8 to 12 pounds (3.6 to 5.4 kg) – in 18 months instead of 36.
The Massachusetts-based company originally planned to harvest the fish in late 2020. Wolf attributed the delay to a reduction in demand and market value for Atlantic salmon induced by the pandemic.
“The impact of COVID prompted us to rethink our initial timeline … no one was looking for more salmon then,” she said. “Now we are very excited about it. We have timed harvest with the recovery of the economy, and we know that demand will continue to increase.”
Although eventually making its way to the food plates, the genetically modified fish have received pushback over the years by environmental advocates.
In January, international food services company Aramark announced its commitment not to sell such salmon, citing environmental concerns and potential impacts on indigenous communities harvesting wild salmon.
Similar announcements were made by other major food service companies — Compass Group and Sodexo — and several large US grocery retailers, seafood companies and restaurants. Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods say they do not sell genetically modified or cloned salmon and will need to be labeled as such.
The boycott against aquabounty salmon has come largely from activists of the Block Corporate Salmon Campaign, which aims to protect wild salmon and preserve indigenous rights to practice sustainable fishing.
“Genetically engineered salmon are a major threat to any vision of a healthy eating system. People need ways to connect to the food they are eating, so they know where it’s coming from,” John Russell, a member of the expedition and a food justice organizer with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. “These fish are so new – and there is such a huge group of people opposing it. This is a huge red flag for consumers.”
Wolf said he believed there was an appetite for fish.
“Most of the salmon in this country is imported, and during the pandemic, we could not bring the products to market,” Wolf said. “So, having a domestic source of supply that is not seasonal like wild salmon and that is produced in a highly controlled, bio-secure environment is increasingly important to consumers.”
AquaBounty markets the salmon as disease- and antibiotic-free, saying its product comes with a low carbon footprint and no risk of polluting marine ecosystems like traditional sea-cage farming .
Despite their rapid growth, genetically modified salmon require less food than most cultivated Atlantic salmon, the company says. Biofiltration units keep the water in the Indiana facility’s multiple 70,000-gallon (264,979-liter) tanks clean, making fish less likely to get sick or require antibiotics.
The FDA approved AquaAdvantage salmon as “safe and effective” in 2015. It was the only genetically modified animal approved for human consumption until federal regulators approved a genetically modified pig for food and medical products in December.
In 2018, the federal agency flagged off AquaBounty’s massive Indiana facility, which is currently raising about 450 tons (408 metric tons) of salmon from eggs imported from Canada, but has been able to raise more than double that amount. .
But in a changing domestic market that values origin, health and stability, and the wild over cultivated seafood, others have a different view of salmon, which some critics have nicknamed “Frankfish”.
Part of the domestic pushback revolves around how engineered fish are to be labeled under FDA guidelines. Salmon fishermen, fish farmers, wholesalers and other stakeholders want clear labeling practices to ensure that customers know they are purchasing an engineered product.
The USDA labeling law instructs companies to disclose genetically modified ingredients in food through the use of QR codes, displays on packages of text, or specified symbols. Compulsory compliance of that rule goes into full effect in January, but the rules do not apply to restaurants or food services.
Wolf said the company is committed to using “genetically engineered” labeling when its fish is sold in grocery stores in the coming months.
In November, US District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco confirmed that the FDA had authority to oversee genetically engineered animals and fish. But he ruled that the agency had not adequately assessed the environmental consequences of AquaBounty salmon fleeing into the wild.
The company argued that survival is unlikely, adding that the fish are monitored 24 hours a day and contained in tanks with screens, nets, nets, pumps and chemical disinfection to prevent escape. Company salmon are also female and sterile, preventing them from mating.
“Our fish are really designed to thrive in land-based environments. That’s part of what makes them unique,” Wolf said. “And we are proud of the fact that genetically engineered allows us to bring a healthy nutritional product to market in a safe, secure and sustainable way.”
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that puts journalists in local news rooms to report on clandestine issues.