Several tons of salmon modified by biotech company AquaBounty Technologies Inc. will now be distributed to restaurants and dining services in the Midwest and throughout the East Coast, the company CEO Sylvia Wulf said.
As for now, Samuels and Son Seafood, a Philadelphia-based seafood distributor, is the only one that is selling the salmon.
AquaBounty started to grow their salmon in Albany, Indiana, in an indoor aquaculture facility. The fish have been genetically modified to grow twice as fast as wild salmon, reaching market size — 8 to 12 pounds in 18 months instead of 36.
The fish were initially scheduled to be harvested in late 2020. Wulf ascribed the delays to the pandemic’s impact on demand and market pricing for Atlantic salmon.
“The impact of COVID caused us to rethink our initial timeline … no one was looking for more salmon then,” she said. “We’re very excited about it now. We’ve timed the harvest with the recovery of the economy, and we know that demand is going to continue to increase.”
Despite eventually finding its way to dinner tables, the genetically modified salmon has been faced with opposition from environmentalists for years.
Aramark, an international food service company, said in January that it will not sell such fish due to environmental concerns and possible repercussions on Indigenous communities that harvest wild salmon.
Similar announcements were made by other major food service organizations, including Compass Group and Sodexo, as well as numerous large U.S. seafood companies and restaurants. Costco, Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods assert that they do not sell genetically modified fish and that they would be required to label them as such.
The Block Corporate Salmon campaign, which aims to defend wild salmon and Indigenous rights to sustainable fishing, is primarily responsible for the boycott against AquaBounty salmon.
“Genetically engineered salmon is a huge threat to any vision of a healthy food system. People need ways to connect with the food they’re eating, so they know where it’s coming from,” said Jon Russell, a member of the campaign and a food justice organizer with Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. “These fish are so new — and there’s such a loud group of people who oppose it. That’s a huge red flag to consumers.”
Wulf said she is confident that there is a demand for the fish.
“Most of the salmon in this country is imported, and during the pandemic, we couldn’t get products into the market,” she said. “So, having a domestic source of supply that isn’t seasonal like wild salmon and that is produced in a highly-controlled, bio-secure environment is increasingly important to consumers.”
AquaBounty promotes the salmon as disease and antibiotic-free, with a lower carbon footprint and no risk of contaminating marine habitats, as traditional sea-cage farming does. Also, it requires less food than typical farmed Atlantic salmon.
The FDA certified AquAdvantage Salmon as “safe and effective” in 2015. It was the only genetically modified animal approved for human consumption until December 2020, when federal officials authorized a genetically modified pig for food and medical products.
In 2018, the FDA approved AquaBounty’s enormous Indiana facility, which is now growing around 450 tons of salmon from eggs imported from Canada but has the capacity to raise more than twice that amount.
Part of the domestic backlash is focused on how the modified fish will be labeled in accordance with FDA regulations. Salmon fishermen, fish growers, distributors, and other stakeholders want clear labeling policies to ensure that buyers understand they are buying an altered product.
The USDA labeling legislation requires companies to disclose genetically modified components in food by using a QR code, on-package text display, or a specified symbol. Compliance with that legislation becomes mandatory in January, although the restrictions do not apply to restaurants or food services.
Wulf stated that the company is going to use “genetically engineered” labels when their fish are distributed in grocery stores in the following months.
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In November, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco ruled that the FDA has the jurisdiction to monitor genetically altered animals and fish. However, he determined that the agency had not fully considered the environmental repercussions of AquaBounty fish escaping into the wild.
The company stated that escape is improbable since the fish are monitored 24 hours a day and kept in tanks with screens, grates, nets, pumps, and chemical disinfection to keep them from escaping.
“Our fish are actually designed to thrive in the land-based environment. That’s part of what makes them unique,” Wulf said. “And we’re proud of the fact that genetically engineered allows us to bring more of a healthy nutritious product to market in a safe, secure, and sustainable way.”
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