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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Frankenfish? What FDA Approval Of GMO Salmon Means For You

It could soon be on your dinner plate: the first genetically modified food animal approved for Americans’ consumption. The federal Food and Drug Administration OK'd sale of GMO salmon on Thursday.

AquaBounty Technologies calls it AquAdvantage Salmon and says this Atlantic salmon reaches market size faster than regular farmed or wild salmon.

The FDA said the salmon is safe to eat and as nutritious as non-GMO Atlantic salmon. And it said the genetic alteration that makes the fish grow faster “is safe for the fish itself.”

But will consumers buy it (literally and figuratively)?

Cassandra Profita, an environment reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting and KUOW’s partner EarthFix, told The Record’s Bill Radke that this genetically engineered salmon might take a while to catch on.

“A lot of people are still suspicious of genetically engineered foods,” Profita said. “But they’re also concerned about the environmental impacts of making them. A lot of the time, genetically engineered plants are engineered so that you can put more chemicals on the plants. And a lot of people don’t want to be engaged in eating those types of foods.”

Environmentalists have worried about putting genetically modified fish in facilities near rivers, fearing the fish could escape into the wild. The company takes pains to say that these salmon are meant to be raised in tanks on land – not in netted pens in open waters. Otherwise, the operations are similar, Profita said.

“They’re farmed the way other types of farmed salmon are raised,” she said.

The company also says that because the fish grow so quickly, less food is required to grow the same amount of fish, compared to traditional farm-raised salmon.

Also, Profita said  “They’re only female, they’re not fertile. They’re not supposed to be able to interbreed with other species.”

AquaBounty Technologies has been working on these salmon for 25 years and the FDA studied them for 20 years before making its decision.

But that hasn’t mollified people in the wild salmon industry.

“Fishermen and fishing groups are very concerned that consumers aren’t going to know necessarily when they go to the grocery store that the fish that they’re buying are these genetically engineered fish,” Profita said.

That’s because no labels will be required on GMO salmon – but does that matter if the FDA can’t tell the difference?

No matter, it’ll be a while before fish wind up at your favorite grocery, if it ever does. Some supermarket chains, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, have previously said that they would not sell genetically modified salmon. In an NPR poll in 2011, only 35 percent of respondents said they would try genetically modified fish.

And there are only two farms right now that will produce the fish – in Canada’s Prince Edward Island and Panama.

Consumers may be the final arbiters, weighing price against perceived risk to themselves and the environment.

“People don’t know how they feel about eating a genetically modified fish,” Profita said.

Derek Wang contributed to this report, which was produced for the Web by Gil Aegerter.

Photo: Christmas Salmon by Tim Lucas on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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