AquaBounty Technologies says it remains confident that there will still be a market for its genetically engineered (GE) AquAdvantage salmon if the FDA approves it, even though some leading food retailers now say they won’t stock it.
AquaBounty CEO Dr Ronald Stotish PhD was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market, Aldi, and other retailers representing 2,000 stores in the US announced that they will not sell GE seafood, even if the FDA gives it the seal of approval.
The firm, which has been stuck in regulatory limbo for years as the FDA mulls over its technology, is hoping to become the first company to introduce a genetically engineered (GE) animal to the human food supply.
Of course we’re disappointed, but the activists see this as a time to mobilize their forces
Dr Stotish told us: “Of course we’re disappointed, but the activists clearly see this as a time to mobilize their forces against us as we are the first [to seek approval for a transgenic animal as a food]."
Despite the huge amount of noise generated by non-GMO campaigners in recent weeks as GMO labeling initiatives have been introduced across several states, AquaBounty has willing buyers in the aquaculture trade for eggs from its GE salmon and is "very confident" that the product will be a success, he said.
Meanwhile, “not one single new scientific or legal argument has been presented to the FDA" since it gave AquaBounty's technology the provisional thumbs up in December, noted Dr Stotish.
“The atmosphere is getting very poisonous, but all we can do is present the facts. It’s a good product and it’s a safe product.”
It’s a good product and it’s a safe product
He added: “The facts about it are clear and publicly available, so I do get frustrated when I hear people repeating lies about it. But I’m just hoping that the strength of law and due process will prevail.”
As for labeling of genetically engineered foods, federal law does not require it if they do not differ from equivalent foods "in any meaningful or material way " or present any different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding methods.
However, AquaBounty has “always supported voluntary labeling” should firms feel it is warranted, said Dr Stotish, who plans to sell eggs to aquaculture facilities inspected and approved by the FDA, rather than farm the salmon directly.
PCC Natural Markets: 'Genetically engineered fish is not sustainable or healthy'
Late last year, the FDA released an environmental assessment of AquaBounty’s New Animal Drug Application for AquAdvantage for public comment, which found that the fish - which would have to be grown in contained facilities approved by the FDA - “would not have a significant impact on the US environment”.
However, opponents continue to argue that the GE salmon could present “serious health risks” and “decimate" wild salmon populations, claims that Stotish says are not supported by the facts.
"We won't sell genetically engineered fish because we don’t believe it is sustainable or healthy,” said Trudy Bialic from PCC Natural Markets, which operates nine stores in Washington State.
However, the AquAdvantage salmon - which includes a gene from the faster-growing Pacific Chinook salmon enabling it to reach maturity twice as quickly as standard Atlantic salmon - is arguably more sustainable than wild salmon, said Dr Stotish.
It is also more sustainable than regular farmed salmon, which are currently imported into the US from all over the world and consume 25% more feed than their GE counterparts before reaching maturity, he pointed out.
From a purely commercial perspective meanwhile, the AquAdvantage salmon will compete with farm-raised Atlantic salmon, rather than wild Alaskan wild salmon, which compete in a different market and will continue to command a premium price, he predicted.
'GE salmon is a problem masquerading as a solution'
However, Friends of the Earth food & technology policy campaigner Eric Hoffman called on retailers, restaurants and fish processors to sign a Pledge for GE-Free Seafood, on the grounds that consumers don't want GE seafood and it "raises unnecessary risks to the environment and wild fisheries".
He also praised moves by Whole Foods et al to boycott GE seafood, and called on others to follow suit: “We applaud these retailers for listening to the vast majority of their customers who want sustainable, natural seafood for their families.
“Now it’s time for other food retailers, including Walmart, Costco and Safeway, to follow suit and let their customers know they will not be selling unlabeled, poorly studied genetically engineered seafood.”
Meanwhile, Heather Whitehead, online campaigns director at Center for Food Safety, said GE salmon was “a problem masquerading as a solution”.
Trojan gene effect does not apply to AquAdvantage Salmon
The main arguments made by opponents to AquaBounty’s salmon are addressed by animal scientists William M. Muir and Alison L. Van Eenennaam in a commentary published in Nature Biotechnology in 2011.
Should the sterile and exclusively-female fish escape from enclosed FDA-regulated facilities into the wild, the data shows they are in fact poorly equipped to multiply, they claim.
“The 'Trojan gene effect’ would not be predicted to occur in the unlikely event AquAdvantage salmon did escape from confinement. Rather, selection over time would be expected to simply purge the transgene from any established population...”
As for food safety risks: “Another allegation was the suggestion that AquAdvantage salmon had 40% more IGF-1, a hormone linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers in humans. In fact, the data showed there was no significant difference between the mean IGF-1 levels for the GE and non-GE diploid salmon.”
Indeed Dr Muir - whose research is repeatedly quoted by opponents of AquaBounty's salmon to support their arguments - has "publicly stated on several occasions his 'Trojan gene' theory does not apply to the AquAdvantage Salmon", Dr Stotish observed.
FDA: AquAdvantage salmon is no more or less allergenic than regular farmed Atlantic salmon
As regards allergenicity, the FDA has made it clear that people who are allergic to Atlantic salmon will probably also be allergic to AquAdvantage salmon because it is a finfish, not because it has been genetically engineered, he added.
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