Wading Through the GM Salmon Debate

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved genetically modified (GM) salmon as safe for human consumption, which prompted people on both sides of the issue to wade into the debate over genetically modified foods and labeling.

The AquAdvantage Salmon, engineered by AquaBounty, is the first genetically altered animal approved for human consumption in the United States. The GM salmon grows twice as fast as conventional salmon and reaches market size more quickly. According to the FDA, “there are no biologically relevant differences in the nutritional profile of AquAdvantage Salmon compared to that of other farm-raised Atlantic salmon.” And since the GM salmon is nutritionally equivalent to conventional salmon, the FDA says it does not need a label indicating it is genetically altered.

This smells fishy to critics, however, who have deemed the salmon “Frankenfish.” Opponents say they’re concerned about potential health risks of genetically modified salmon and the impact it may have on the wild salmon population. In addition, they’re worried that people won’t necessarily be aware that they’re eating GM salmon because it won’t be labeled as such.

Some retailers have announced they won’t sell the GM salmon. The latest store to make such an announcement is Costco after it was pressured by activists to denounce the fish. In a statement to the Associated Press, the company said, “Although the FDA has approved the sale of GM salmon, Costco has not sold and does not intend to sell GM salmon at this time.” Last week, Red Lobster said it has “no immediate plans to serve genetically modified seafood” in its 705 North American restaurants.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) has said it is prepared to sue the FDA over the approval of GM salmon and is asking consumers to donate money to support their cause. On its website, CFS says the approval “threatens the very survival of our native salmon populations, and could have unknown health impacts on humans.”

Some lawmakers, including Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, are proposing legislation to require labeling of the GM salmon. Murkowski said she is “furious” over the approval of the fish and said she “will not stand back and just watch these genetically engineered creatures be placed in our kitchens and on our tables without a fight.” In addition, Murkowski indicated she is prepared to block the confirmation of new FDA chief Dr. Robert Califf to demonstrate her conviction to labeling of GM salmon.

While the Food and Drug Administration has said the GM salmon will not be required to carry a label indicating it is genetically modified, it released draft guidance on voluntary labeling because “…some consumers are interested in knowing whether food ingredients are derived from GE sources,” according to Dr. Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The agency published draft guidance for both labeling of foods derived from GM salmon and from GM plants.

Meanwhile, the FDA has rejected a citizen’s petition calling for mandatory labeling of GM foods. The FDA’s Leslie Kux said that requiring a label for a technology instead of for a food doesn’t make sense. According to an article at Food Navigator, Kux said what matters is whether the end product is materially different from its conventional version.

The GM salmon isn’t expected to be commercially available until at least 2017. Whether it will be labeled as genetically engineered remains to be seen. Some consumers have expressed their reluctance to consume the fish, but would they be more accepting of the product if it were labeled as being genetically modified?

New research from The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity indicates that improved transparency increases consumer trust in food. An online survey of 2,000 people explored the attributes most important to consumers when it comes to trust-building transparency. Among them — company practices including providing information on product labels and offering engagement opportunities through company websites.

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The research aims to help the food system better understand what it takes to earn and maintain consumer trust. Providing insight that increases consumer engagement will help consumers make informed decisions and help align food system practices with consumer values and expectations.

Download the current research here, and register for our research webinar series.