Genetically Engineered Salmon: Will You Eat It? Will You Know?

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The stage is set. After a draft assessment released last week, the FDA has now stated publicly its belief that the genetically engineered Atlantic Salmon known as “AquAdvantage” (or less lovingly, “Frankenfish) is unlikely to pose a threat to the environment and is safe for human consumption. While this approval process has been underway for 15 years, these major hurdles have been overcome only in the last 2 years. Although the official approval is pending, and it may be a couple years beyond that before we see these fish at the seafood counter, it is widely believed that last week’s report marks the final obstacle to be cleared.

With the man-given ability to grow year-round rather than only during spring and summer, these salmon will grow to market size twice as fast as normal farm-raised or wild salmon. In order to mitigate the environmental consequences of such a fish getting into the wild, AquaBounty (the company behind GE Salmon) will raise only sterile triploid females (with 3 chromosomes instead of the usual two) at exclusively inland facilities where there is little possibility for escape. 

While most of the past week’s news-media discussion has focused on environmental impacts, as a nutritionist I can’t help but renew the “safe for human consumption” question. I believe there is a distinction to be made between “safe” for consumption and “good” for consumption. I’m not sure that concept factors into the FDA decision, especially when GE Salmon is being evaluated as a New Animal Drug Application (NADA) rather than a food product. Granted, genetic modification will make salmon more affordable and available to people who may not have access to it in today’s market. But will the salmon we create to make that a reality provide the same health benefits that drove this movement for more salmon in the first place?

According to the FDA, the simple answer is yes. In quelling any hopes for mandatory labeling of GE Salmon in the market, the FDA cited its “material” similarity to non-GE farm-raised salmon as reason for its inability to require labeling. In this case, “material” similarity includes some measure of nutritional similarity. But given all that we are still learning every day about how food and food components interact with our bodies, can anyone really make that distinction with certainty?

When I teach people how to make smart food choices, I always encourage them to consider a food’s lifecycle prior to reaching the dinner plate – where it came from, how it was raised/grown/manufactured, what it was fed, was it man-made or earth-made? These often overlooked considerations can have a huge impact on the healthfulness of a food, not to mention our environment. Needless to say, the answers to these questions don’t bode well for the fate of GE Salmon on my plate.

How about yours? What questions would you ask? How will the introduction of GE Salmon influence your salmon buying decisions? Will you eat it? Will you know?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

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