After years of review and endless controversy, the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved the nation’s first genetically altered animal — a salmon engineered to grow twice as fast as its natural counterpart.
AquAdvantage, produced by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty, is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and has been given a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The result is a fish that is large enough for consumption in about a year and a half, rather than the typical three years.
Food-safety activists, environmental groups and the salmon fishing industry, not to mention lawmakers from Alaska, have long opposed the approval of the fish — which they derisively refer to as “Frankenfish” — and have argued that its existence could open the door to a broad range of potentially unsafe genetically modified animal foods. Knowing an FDA approval was likely, critics have in recent years won commitments from some of the nation’s most recognizable chains — including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Target — to not sell the fish.
The FDA said Thursday that its decision was “based on sound science and a comprehensive review,” and that regulators are confident that the genetically altered fish is as safe to eat as a normal Atlantic salmon, with no discernible difference in its nutritional value. Officials noted that the agency held meetings, combed through thousands of public comments and conducted scientific and environmental assessments about the AquaBounty fish before finally approving it.
“All of that took time,” said Laura Epstein, a senior policy analyst in the FDA’s center for veterinary medicine. “As with many products that are the first of their kind, we’re very careful to be sure we’re getting everything right.”
Salmon fishermen and environmental activists have raised concerns about the havoc that could occur if any of AquaBounty’s engineered salmon made it into ocean waters and mated with wild Atlantic salmon — a scenario they say could have unpredictable impacts and lead to the decimation of wild populations. AquaBounty has said its fish are all female and sterile, making it impossible for them to breed with other salmon, even if they somehow were to escape their land-locked production facilities. The company argues its fish actually could reduce pressure on wild fish stocks and prevent the overfishing of Atlantic salmon.