This Week, FDA Considers Genetically Engineered Salmon for Human Consumption

Transgenic Atlantic salmon called AquAdvantage grow at twice the rate of their natural counterparts. These fish are the same age. AquaBounty

In a case with major implications for the future of food, the FDA is poised to decide this week whether it is OK to sell and eat supersalmon whose DNA has been deliberately altered. It would be the first time genetically modified animals would be legal to sell for human consumption. So in the near future, the lox on your morning bagel might be something pretty different from what nature intended — and you might never know it.

It’s been 15 years since the Massachusetts firm AquaBounty first applied for the ability to sell its genetically engineered salmon, which grow at a freakishly fast rate and thus take less time to flesh out into tasty coral-colored fillets.

The FDA has already said the fish are safe to eat; at issue is whether the manufacturer can label it as such. Also at issue: whether anyone will know they’re eating genetically modified salmon. Current FDA regulations require GM foods to be identified only if they are substantially different than the natural version, and the FDA has said the “AquAdvantage” salmon is basically the same as its Atlantic sisters, according to the AP.

Consumer groups, including the agency that publishes the widely respected Consumer Reports magazine, say the FDA is relying on too little data and that its review process, which keeps some details confidential, is not transparent enough. Skeptics worry about Frankenfish-induced allergies and illnesses, because the fish have never been eaten before. Other critics fear that rampaging populations of fast-growing salmon, which grow at twice the rate of their normal brethren, might out-eat wild populations and starve them into extinction.

While most crops in the US are genetically modified in some way, so far, no one has been allowed to market genetically engineered animals for human consumption. But plenty of firms are waiting in the wings with designer pigs, cows and chickens, whose approval could be more likely if the FDA approves the GM salmon.

The altered fish include a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from an eel-like creature called an ocean pout, which allow the fish to produce their growth hormone all year long. The Chinook and Atlantic growth hormones are the same, but the Chinook hormone is expressed differently, according to AquaBounty. Company officials say the fish are environmentally sustainable and that only females will be sold. They have three sets of chromosomes, making them sterile and thus preventing new families of mutant fish or interbreeding with native populations.

If the FDA approves AquaBounty’s sale of the fish, it could be available in supermarkets within two years, AP reports.