After a 20-year review, the FDA just approved the first genetically modified animal for Americans to eat. But don’t expect to see the AquAdvantage salmon, created by AquaBounty Technologies of Waltham, Mass., in grocery stores or restaurants any time soon. Even barring legal challenges, which have already been threatened, it will likely take two years to get the fish to market.
I talked about this fish tale with Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal biotechnology specialist at the University of California, Davis, who has been following the AquAdvantage salmon story for several years. I also chatted with Alan Goldberg, who is with the Global Food Ethics Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University.
Is genetically engineered food risky?
Alison Van Eenennaam: We’ve been genetically selecting food species, both plants and animals, since Adam was a boy. The risks of genetic engineering are no different than the risks of doing the same thing with selective breeding.
Alan Goldberg: Every animal we consume for food has been modified one way or another over millennia. Genetic engineering is just another way to do it. Compare pictures of beef cows from today with images of beef cows in the 1700s. They look like different species. Today’s industrial turkey has been bred for so much breast meat that it can barely stand up and can’t have normal intercourse. I see nothing wrong with eating genetically modified fish or other animals.
If the AquAdvantage salmon makes it to the marketplace, would you buy it?
AVE: In a heartbeat. Compared with traditionally farmed Atlantic salmon, I’d buy the AquAdvantage because I believe it is environmentally superior to conventionally farmed salmon. It requires less feed over its lifetime. That significantly reduces the environmental footprint of raising fish for food. I’d also buy it because I support innovation in agriculture.
AG: It would be great if we could eat only wild native fish. But fish stocks are declining. This genetically modified salmon offers a good, environmentally sound alternative.
My one concern is how these animals will be raised. It’s impossible to know “What does a salmon want?” As long as the genetically modified salmon, and other farm-raised salmon for that matter, are grown in a humane way that doesn’t create environmental problems and that avoids the use of antibiotics, which is creating a public health disaster for us, then I think they represent a step forward.
What makes the AquAdvantage salmon different from a regular Atlantic salmon?
AVE: The AquAdvantage carries a growth hormone gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon. It also has regulatory pieces of a gene from the ocean pout, a fish that lives off the coast of New England and eastern Canada. In the pout, these regulatory pieces control the expression of an antifreeze protein in the pout’s blood to let it survive in near-freezing water. The additions to the AquAdvantage salmon’s genes generate growth hormones in response to cold temperatures. As a result, the fish grows in cold water at a constant rate throughout year, and can get to market size in about half the time it takes conventional salmon and using 25 percent less feed. Other than that, analyses by the FDA show that the genetically modified salmon does not differ from non-modified, farmed Atlantic salmon.
How does the FDA determine that a genetically modified organism is safe to eat?
AVE: The FDA determines safety by compositional analysis. Basically, it grinds up samples and evaluates what is in them. In these analyses, the genetically modified salmon and wild Atlantic salmon were not different. The FDA also determined that the new protein in the AquAdvantage salmon didn’t cause allergies. Of course, if you are allergic to fish, don’t eat this one or any other salmon. In reality, there’s no such thing as a completely safe food — no matter what breeding method was used to produce it. So what the FDA scientists really determined was that the food from the AquAdvantage salmon was as safe as food from conventional salmon.
Weren’t there concerns about growth hormone and allergens?
AVE: Before and after the September 2010 FDA hearing on the AquAdvantage salmon, several interest groups claimed that this fish carried higher levels of a growth hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) than wild Atlantic salmon, and that it was more likely to cause allergic reactions. These allegations were from cherry-picked data. The amount of growth hormone was too low to measure in all of the AquAdvantage salmon samples, while the amount of IGF-1 was too low to measure in most of the samples. Even if individuals ate a lot of the genetically modified salmon, it wouldn’t significantly increase the amount of growth hormone and IGF-1 they consumed.
We eat growth hormone and IGF-1 from different animals all the time. But we digest these proteins so they can’t affect the body.
When it came to allergy-causing proteins, the FDA concluded that the genetically modified salmon didn’t present a new risk of allergic reaction to salmon-allergic individuals and isn’t likely to cause new allergic reactions.
Are there environmental concerns? What would happen if the AquAdvantage salmon got into the wild?
AVE: The company designed its production systems to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to escape. There’s a biological barrier — the fish are all female and sterile. There are also physical barriers. The salmon are hatched at a facility in Canada. Screens prevent their escape and the hatchlings would not be able to survive in the highly salty water surrounding the facility. The fish are then raised in a land-based facility in Panama, and could not survive in the warm streams and lakes around it.
Were you surprised that the FDA approved this genetically modified fish?
AVE: No. But I am surprised at how long it took. The company provided the proof of concept more than a quarter of a century ago, and formally started the review process with the FDA in 1995. After a public meeting in September 2010, which followed AquaBounty’s unprecedented voluntary public release of all of the regulatory data about this genetically modified animal, I was certain that the FDA would approve it. At that time, FDA reviewers unanimously concluded that this food was as safe as conventional Atlantic salmon. What’s been happening in terms of finally making a decision in the five years since then is a mystery.
Alison Van Eenennaam is an animal biotechnology specialist at the University of California, Davis. She was a subject matter expert when the FDA Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee evaluated the AquAdvantage salmon in September 2010. Alan Goldberg, PhD, is a professor of toxicology and principal investigator in the Global Food Ethics Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University.