The process only took 20 years.
Just last week (Nov 19), the FDA announced its approval of AquAdvantage Salmon — the first genetically modified (GM) animal you can eat, dubbed “Frankenfish.” Despite its questionable nickname, the FDA declares the salmon is just as safe and nutritious as regular Atlantic salmon, and that there are no “biologically relevant differences” in nutrition to farm-raised Atlantic salmon, according to the press release.
The man-made breed of salmon is part Atlantic salmon and part Chinook salmon, according to TIME, and also incorporates a few genes from other fish. Unlike typical Atlantic salmon, which only produce growth hormones seasonally, Frankenfish will produce growth hormones all year round, enabling it to grow at twice the rate of other farm-raised fish.
The approval process took a lengthy 20 years, and the GM salmon had to pass a number of safety requirements before getting the OK to populate your dinner plates:
The rDNA construct (the piece of DNA that speeds up the salmon’s growth) is safe for the fish itself.
The salmon is safe to eat.
AquAdvantage Salmon is just as nutritious as non-GE Atlantic salmon, with no biologically relevant differences in their nutritional profiles.
Not only has the FDA confirmed that the salmon is safe to eat, but the agency completed an environmental assessment required by the National Environmental Policy Act, determining that AquAdvantage Salmon would have no significant environmental impact.
The fish will be contained with multiple physical barriers to ensure they don’t escape into the wild, including plumbing that filters out eggs and fish. However, even if a GM salmon managed a stealthy getaway, the fish are sterile and therefore unable to breed in the wild.
Interestingly, although the FDA approved AquAdvantage Salmon for sale and consumption in the US, the GM salmon cannot be raised in America. Instead, Canada and Panama will host on-land hatchery tanks, and the FDA will regularly oversee the facilities.
As with most decisions concerning the food we put in our bodies, the decision was met with both praise and criticism.
According to William Muir, a professor of genetics and animal sciences at Purdue University, the decision is a "huge win-win for the environment, consumers and the process,” he said in a statement. “The current practice of using wild caught salmon as a food source is not sustainable; our oceans are overfished,” he continued. “This development provides a safe and sustainable alternative.”
But others aren’t as convinced as Muir. “This unfortunate, historic decision disregards the vast majority of consumers, many independent scientists, numerous members of Congress and salmon growers around the world, who have voiced strong opposition,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement.
Perhaps the biggest concern is the fact that there is no label requirement for the GM salmon. The FDA can only require foods to be labeled as GMO if there’s a material difference between the GM and non-GM products; however, the FDA found no such difference between the AquAdvantage and farm-raised salmon.
“To add insult to injury, this product will be hitting store shelves without labeling, making it impossible for concerned consumers to distinguish GMO from non-GMO salmon,” said Hauter. “Not only does this ignore consumers’ fundamental right to know how our food is produced, it is simply bad for business, since many consumers will avoid purchasing any salmon for fear it is genetically engineered.”
However, the GM salmon manufacturer, AquaBounty, writes that AquAdvantage Salmon is “the world’s most sustainable salmon,” and that the fish will “deliver the biggest marine benefits with the smallest environmental footprint.”