The beleaguered boss of AquaBounty Technologies says Sen Lisa Murkowski's attempts to force mandatory labeling of his firm's genetically engineered (GE) salmon are "another setback" in what has been a "dreadful experience", but he remains confident that the FDA will give his fast-growing fish the green light.
AquaBounty CEO Dr Ron Stotish told FoodNavigator-USA he was "disappointed" the Senate Appropriations Committee has passed an amendment to the 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill requiring mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) salmon, but says it is by no means clear that it will become law.
AquaBounty - which is hoping to become the first company to introduce a GE animal to the human food supply - has been waiting for years for the FDA to approve its AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon, which contains a growth hormone gene from the faster-growing Chinook salmon enabling it to reach maturity twice as quickly as regular Atlantic salmon.
However, it has faced continued opposition from the anti-GMO lobby and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly from the Northwest, who claim that the FDA has failed to properly scrutinize the product’s potential impact on human health and the environment.
One of the most vocal critics is senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill - passed by 15 votes to 14 - stipulates that “the labeling of GE salmon offered for sale to consumers indicate that such salmon is genetically engineered”.
Labeling amendment is a big step forward for consumer rights
In a press release celebrating her victory in a “major battle in the war over genetically modified salmon”, Sen Murkowski voiced fears about “Jurassic Park science ending up on Americans’ dinner plates” and said that should the “Frankenfish” escape into the wild, they could threaten the wild salmon industry.
The vote was welcomed by the Just Label It campaign, which said: "Americans deserve the right to know more, not less, about the food they eat and feed their families”, while the Center for Food Safety said it was a “big step forward for consumer rights”.
Responsible people continue to misrepresent the facts.
However, Dr Stotish told FoodNavigator-USA he was less concerned about the merits or otherwise of GM labeling than with the damaging misinformation that Sen. Murkowski and others continue to disseminate about his product, coupled with the inflammatory language.
The ‘Frankenfish’ label in particular has stuck, while several high-profile retailers including Target, Whole Foods Market, Aldi and Trader Joe’s have also said they will not stock the GE salmon even if it is approved by the FDA, citing concerns Dr Stotish says are not supported by hard evidence. Click here .
It’s been a dreadful experience
He added: “We continue to battle to communicate the reality of our product, but responsible people continue to misrepresent the facts. Senator Murkowski should know better, although we don’t think that this amendment will become law.
“The appropriations committee appears to be attempting to legislate policy that the FDA is responsible for. Our president talks about science-based regulation but we continue to face these shenanigans.
“It’s been a dreadful experience.”
Atlantic salmon brown trout hybrid is sterile
The reaction to a recent scientific paper (click here ) showing that fertile AquAdvantage salmon can breed with wild brown trout and produce hybrid offspring with the same fast-growing characteristics, was a case in point, he said.
The paper, which led to headlines such as ‘Frankenfish Can Breed with Wild Trout to Produce Super-Frankenfish’, has been widely cited by critics as proof that GE salmon could decimate wild fish populations.
What they neglect to point out was that the AquAdvantage salmon that will be produced commercially are exclusively female, sterile and will only be raised in FDA-approved contained facilities, said Dr Stotish. So they won’t breed with brown trout, wild salmon, or anything else.
“Tests would be performed on every commercial batch of fish to ensure our product meets our specifications.”
But even if fertile GE fish did mate with brown trout in the wild, the resulting hybrids would be unable to reproduce, he pointed out.
“In 1995, Peter Galbreath and Gary Thorgaard of Washington State University published research that the Atlantic salmon brown trout hybrid is sterile. Such a hybrid would pose little ecological threat as the fish could not reproduce.”
AquaBounty has always supported voluntary labeling
While the FDA is expected to give a yes or no to AquaBounty soon, “not one single new scientific or legal argument [against the technology] has been presented" since the agency gave the GE salmon the provisional thumbs up in December 2012, claimed Dr Stotish.
As for labeling, the FDA currently only requires it when there is a difference in the nutritional value, composition, safety (eg. allergenicity) or processability of a food compared with its traditional counterpart, he said.
And as the nutritional and biological composition of AquAdvantage Salmon is identical to Atlantic salmon, additional labeling based upon the method of production is not required.
However, AquaBounty has “always supported voluntary labeling”, said Dr Stotish.
What is AquAdvantage salmon?
AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon contain a growth hormone gene from the faster-growing Chinook salmon which is effectively ‘turned on’ all year round instead of only during the warmer months, halving the time they take to reach maturity. They also require less food, enabling firms to grow more fish with less feed.
In a draft Environmental Assessment released last December and the accompanying Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), the FDA concluded that “No effects on stocks of wild Atlantic salmon are expected”, and that “approval of AquAdvantage salmon …will not jeopardize the continued existence of US populations of threatened or endangered Atlantic salmon or result in the destruction or adverse modification of their critical habitat, when produced and reared under the conditions described.”