This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.
In November, following nearly two decades of debate and discussion, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a genetically modified salmon, called the AquAdvantage, for human consumption. It is the first genetically engineered animal to earn such an approval.
The FDA declared there are no "biologically relevant differences in the nutritional profile" of this salmon when compared with regular salmon, but this fish, which is actually part salmon and part ocean pout, grows twice as fast as regular salmon. The FDA approval means that the fish may soon appear in your local supermarket's seafood department. When that happens, it's likely that nobody will know, because there is no requirement that the fish be labeled as a genetically modified organism (GMO). The FDA proposed voluntary guidelines that leave the decision to label or not to label up to the companies selling the salmon.
But labeling is an issue that is far from settled among consumers, and they are driving state governments to take up the issue. Vermont was the first state to make GMO labeling mandatory, but it's a popular idea everywhere. In an ABC poll of U.S. consumers, 93 percent of respondents said the federal government should require labels on food that's been genetically modified. At the same time, 57 percent of them reported they would be less likely to buy foods labeled as genetically modified, which surely makes the idea of labeling much less appealing to food companies.
The poll results also revealed a strong gender difference. Sixty-two percent of women thought genetically modified foods unsafe for consumption. Forty percent of men agreed.
Meanwhile, as these consumers may or may not know, 89 percent of U.S. corn acres are already genetically engineered, as are 94 percent of soybeans. Half of our sugar comes from genetically modified sugar beets. So almost everyone is already eating GMO products.
For the salmon, marketing looks to be the next hurdle. Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Target, Aldi and Red Lobster are just some of the outlets that have vowed not to offer it to their customers. Costco, which is the country's largest retailer of salmon (selling 600,000 pounds of salmon every week), has also passed on dealing with the AquAdvantage.
The salmon was approved under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, because the changes made were classified as an "animal drug" ‚Äî the recombinant DNA (known as rDNA) added to the fish to give it its special properties meets the act's definition of a drug. This could become important in the case of future genetically modified creatures because the act requires the FDA to keep the process of a drug application secret unless the applicant decides to make it public. In the case of the salmon, the process actually was made public, but future instances that fit into the "animal drug" definition would not have to do so.
That idea will sit uneasily with the consumer trend toward increased transparency in food production, but other genetically modified food animals are already in the pipeline ‚Äî pigs that grow extra muscle, milk cows that don't grow horns (but still produce milk), chickens resistant to bird flu ‚Äî so, while consumers consider these developments, science marches on.