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GM Salmon Approved by FDA
Agency okayed sale of genetically modified salmon (unlabeled), despite strong public and expert objections

12/02/2015 By Craig Weatherby
Late last month, the U.S. FDA approved the sale of a genetically modified (GM) salmon.

The FDA ignored more than 1.8 million people who submitted comments opposing approval.

Worse, the FDA won't require a "genetically modified” label on this poorly researched animal.

We deplore both decisions … and major food and restaurant chains have also refused to sell the newly approved GM salmon.

These include Costco, Kroger, Safeway, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Red Lobster.

Only a few large grocery chains – notably Walmart and Publix – remain undecided about GM salmon.

Accordingly, it will be many months – if ever – before any farmed GM salmon is sold in American stores or restaurants.

Rest assured that you will never receive farmed GM salmon – or any other farmed salmon – from Vital Choice.

No GM Salmon at Vital Choice
The only salmon we purchase and sell are four species of wild Pacific salmon.

We have never sold any farmed salmon, and never will, because the practices typical of salmon farms pose serious risks to coastal environments and to wild salmon.

Our wild salmon is selected by former Alaska fishermen, including VitalChoice founder/president Randy Hartnell, his brother Terry Hartnell (warehouse manager), Dave Hamburg (chief operations officer), and Rich Walsh (lead salmon buyer).

They've worked closely with our suppliers since Vital Choice began selling wild Pacific salmon in 2002 ... and can easily detect the differences between farmed Atlantic salmon and wild Pacific salmon.

Our stance against GM foods and farmed salmon – backed by their expertise – ensure that Vital Choice will never buy or sell GM farmed salmon.

Details of the GM salmon
AquaBounty – the company behind the AquAdvantage GM salmon – created it by splicing two bits of foreign genetic material into Atlantic salmon eggs.

One was a growth-hormone gene from king (chinook) salmon, and the other was a genetic switch from an eel-like fish called ocean pout, which keeps the king salmon gene turned on.

The fish were also genetically engineered to be sterile, via changes that cause them to carry three copies of each chromosome instead of two.

However, AquaBounty's own documents reveal that about one percent of the fish may remain fertile.

The company claims their GM fish can grow to market weight in 18 to 20 months, compared with 28 to 36 months for conventional farmed salmon.

And AquaBounty says that the genetic changes sharply reduce the amount of feed required to bring the fish to market size.

But there are already signs that their fast-growing claim isn't proving true at the company's land-based salmon farm in Panama.

If the GM salmon don't grow significantly faster on less feed, the expected wholesale price advantage will vanish … along with any interest from retailers or restaurants.

FDA health-assessment deemed deeply flawed
According to the FDA, "… an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review” led the agency to decide that AquAdvantage GM salmon is "as safe as non-GM Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.”

Even if that were true, it wouldn't be saying much, because the fat profiles of regular farmed Atlantic salmon are clearly inferior to those of wild salmon. (See "Nutritional deficiencies of farmed salmon", below.)

But many critics dispute the agency's claim that AquAdvantage GM salmon are essentially equivalent to regular Atlantic salmon.

That's because credible experts have decried as inadequate the safety assessments and tests that FDA required AquaBounty to perform.  

One of the most credible critics is Professor Anne Kapuscinski, Ph.D., of Dartmouth College, who – among many distinguished appointments – served on four U.S. National Academy of Science committees that studied salmon conservation and proper risk analysis of GM foods.

As she told NPR in 2011: "My main concern was that the kind of data presented [by AquaBounty] had gaps, and the quality of the analysis of the data, especially the statistical analysis, was really quite a low bar ... if this application is approved with these low standards of science … it sets the precedent that this is what the U.S. government will expect.” (NPR 2011)

(Her critique remains relevant, because the FDA did not require any significant additional safety assessments between that interview and the agency's recent approval of GM salmon.)

Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumers Union, echoed her concern: "This sets the bar incredibly low for engineered animals. There were serious problems with the safety assessment.”

To be clear, it seems unlikely that significant health risks would result from consuming this particular GM fish. 

However, many researchers with relevant expertise share the concerns expressed by Drs. Hansen and Kapuscinski about the FDA's review.

Nutritional deficiencies of farmed salmon: GM or otherwise
In addition to concerns about the possible health risks posed by GM salmon, all farmed salmon are less healthful than wild salmon.

Standard and GM farmed salmon alike are treated with pesticides and antibiotics, and fed an unnatural diet heavy in grains and soy. 

Compared with wild salmon, this unnatural diet makes farmed salmon high in omega-6 fats, with unhealthful effects (see Farmed Salmon's Diet Yields Unhealthful Cardiovascular Effects and Farmed Fish Possess Unhealthful Fat Profiles).

Accordingly, regular consumption of any farmed salmon – regular or GM – worsens the unhealthful "Omega Imbalance” characteristic of the standard American diet. 

(You can easily test your blood at home to see where you stand ... which experts like William Sears, M.D., recommend.)

To boost their omega-3 levels to match those in wild salmon, farmed salmon are fed fish oil and/or small fish (e.g., sardines, anchovies, and menhaden) … a practice that depletes wild fish critical to the ocean food chain.

And most farmed salmon are fed synthetic, chemically altered forms of the red-orange antioxidant called astaxanthin, which wild salmon get from the tiny crustaceans in their diets.

Natural forms of astaxanthin display remarkable health-promoting properties in laboratory and clinical studies.

In contrast, the synthetic astaxanthin compounds fed to most farmed salmon are either less healthful than the natural forms, or potentially unhealthful. (A minority of farmed salmon are fed natural astaxanthin derived from algae.)

GM Atlantic salmon cannot interbreed with wild Pacific salmon
The GM salmon are currently being raised in onshore tanks near the high-altitude headwaters of Panama's Rio Caldera.

Fortunately, even if some GM Atlantic salmon escape and make their way thousands of miles north, Atlantic salmon cannot interbreed with any species of Pacific salmon.

This is because Atlantic and Pacific salmon belong to different genera (genus Salmo versus genus Oncorhynchus), and have different numbers of chromosomes (PSF 2015).

Risk of GM salmon interbreeding with wild Atlantic salmon
AquaBounty is currently producing the GM salmon eggs in Canada, and shipping the fry (baby salmon) to its onshore farm in Panama.

The company asserts that raising their GM salmon on land will prevent the fish from escaping, or reduce the risk to near zero.

Critics of standard, ocean ocean-based salmon farms – including Vital Choice – advocate land-based aquaculture of salmon, for three good reasons:
  • Eliminate transfer of lice and viral diseases from farmed to wild fish
  • Reduce or eliminate pollution of coastal waters (with fish waste, pesticides, and antibiotics)
  • Prevent farmed Atlantic salmon from escaping to compete or interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon.
But there's good reason to believe that AquaBounty's real goal is to sell their eggs to conventional, ocean-based salmon farms.

As Dr. Kapuscinski told Outside magazine in 2012, "They're saying that they're going to be land-based. I'll believe it when I see it. Right now all the capital in the salmon farming industry is invested in [open-ocean] cage culture, for some good reasons, because that's much easier to make financially viable [compared with land-based salmon farming].”

And it's not uncommon for farmed salmon to escape from ocean pens: see Salmon Escape Norwegian Farm in Staggering Numbers.

Almost half a million salmon (490,000) escaped in that single incident, and if they'd been GM salmon, up to 5,000 might have been fertile.

Credible research shows that GM Atlantic salmon can interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon, and the resulting hybrid can out-compete the wild salmon (Oke KB et al. 2013).

Help fight GM salmon in court
The Center for Food Safety is mounting a court challenge to the FDA's approval of GM salmon.

The organization also announced intent to sue the FDA to block public sale and consumption of the AquAdvantage GM salmon.

We urge you to consider donating funds to the legal challenge being mounted by CFS.


Sources
  • Galbreath PF, Thorgaard GH. Sexual maturation and fertility of diploid and triploid Atlantic salmon X brown trout hybrids. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0044-8486(95)01115-3
  • Oke KB, Westley PA, Moreau DT, Fleming IA. Hybridization between genetically modified Atlantic salmon and wild brown trout reveals novel ecological interactions. Proc Biol Sci. 2013 May 29;280(1763):20131047. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1047. Print 2013 Jul 22.
  • Outside / LeVaux A. The Genetically Engineered Salmon That Could Soon Run Wild. Accessed at http://www.outsideonline.com/1900276/genetically-engineered-salmon-could-soon-run-wild
  • Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF). Salmon Facts. Accessed at https://www.psf.ca/learn/salmon-facts