The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced today that it has approved a genetically modified salmon for sale in the U.S. This is the first genetically modified animal approved for sale as food. The FDA does not require it to be labelled as genetically modified.
The product, called AquAdvantage salmon, was designed to grow faster and with less feed than conventional salmon. It was developed by AquaBounty Technologies, a publicly traded biotechnology company based in Maynard, Mass. It is a subsidiary of Intrexon, is a Maryland-based "synthetic biology" company with revenues of nearly $72 million and net loss of $81.8 million in 2014.
The key advantage of most genetically engineered food, including plant crops like corn and soybeans already in the U.S. food system, is efficiency. AquaBounty claims the new salmon requires 20-25% less feed than any other farmed Atlantic salmon on the market today.
Salmon is now the second most popular seafood in the U.S. after shrimp, but the potential market for AquAdvantage salmon is not clear. Large grocery retailers like Whole Foods and Kroger have policies against selling genetically engineered seafood, according to the activist group Friends of the Earth, which opposes genetically modified food. It's not just genetically tinkered meat: a number of fast food chains said they have no plans to carry a new GE apple that does not brown, for example. Such consumer aversion to genetically modified organisms has led brands like Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Cheerios cereal, and the restaurant chain Chipotle to go GMO-free.
The FDA determined that "food from AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe to eat and as nutritious as food from other non-GE Atlantic salmon."
As for the environmental impact if the fast-growing salmon escape into the wild, AquAdvantage salmon are all female and are reproductively sterile. The approved fish may be raised in land-based facilities in Canada and Panama with "multiple and redundant physical barriers to prevent eggs and fish from escaping," according to the FDA, which will oversee the facilities. The AquAdvantage fish are not approved to be bred or raised in the U.S.
A representative for AquaBounty said in an email, "It is too early to discuss our commercialization plans but there are several paths to market that we are considering."
Other genetically engineered meats could be on the way. According to a statement from Friends of the Earth, more than 35 other species of genetically engineered fish, along with chickens, pigs and cows, are currently under development, and "the FDA’s decision on this genetically engineered salmon application sets a precedent for other genetically engineered fish and animals."