GE Salmon Caught, Temporarily, in a Net of RegulationMay 2nd, 2018
Cornucopia’s Take: Genetically engineered (GE) salmon by AquaBounty have yet to hit U.S. markets, in part because the FDA has yet to come out with their GE labeling law. Funding behind the GE salmon appears to be nearly infinite, and AquaBounty is determined to wait out legislators and policies. While it is likely that these fish will make it to U.S. markets at some point, many retailers have already stated they will not carry the controversial fish, and modern salmon breeding has already produced fish that mature as quickly as the AqaBounty fish. We will continue to monitor this story as it unfolds.
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The Fight to Keep GE-Salmon Off of Our Dinner Plates is a Complicated and Uncertain One
As many of you may remember, President Obama’s Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved the highly controversial genetically-engineered salmon in 2015, against the vocal opposition from millions of Americans, 40 members of Congress, and more than 300 environmental, consumer, health and animal welfare organizations, salmon and fishing groups and associations, food companies, chefs, and restaurants.
Yet, here we are more than two years later, and GE-salmon is still not available in the U.S., a fortunate reality but one that may not last forever.
Here is a look at this multi-faceted situation and what is preventing GE-salmon from making its way to our dinner plates.
Lawsuit Against the FDA
Soon after the FDA approved GE-salmon, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the FDA alleging, among other things, that:
(1) The FDA did not have the authority to regulate genetically-modified animals as “animal drugs” under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
(2) The FDA failed to protect the environment and consult wildlife agencies in its review process, as required by federal law.
(3) The FDA violated the Endangered Species Act, of which wild salmon is an endangered species.
The lawsuit is pending, and the latest news is that a federal judge ruled that the FDA must turn over internal documents related to the GE-salmon approval process, something that the agency fought against. It is expected that the legal case will be heard sometime in the 2nd half of 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
If the FDA loses the case, the agency could appeal the decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals or even possibly to the Supreme Court. So, the lawsuit could go on for a few more years, and the timing is uncertain.
The most critical piece of this case to understand is that the lawsuit against the FDA is not the reason GE-salmon is not in supermarkets today in the U.S.
There is no injunction.
Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski
The Republican senator from Alaska is fighting fiercely to prevent GE-salmon from entering the U.S. market, largely to protect salmon fishers in her state.
As such, she has attached two pieces of legislation to a federal omnibus bill that would require (1) GE-salmon to use the words “genetically-engineered” on its packaging and (2) the FDA to pass and implement a GE-labeling law.
She is also attempting to pass a piece of legislation that would require a third-party environmental assessment of GE-salmon.
According to Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Safety, “Senator Murkowski won her Senate seat as a write-in candidate. She is not one to underestimate.”
FDA Protocol and Bureaucracy
The FDA still has not announced a GE-labeling law.
However, it is believed that the agency is waiting for the USDA to produce its own GE-labeling law — which Congress said must be finished by July 2018 — so that there is no overlap in between what the FDA comes out with and what the USDA comes out with.
It is uncertain if the USDA will meet its mandatory deadline of this summer.
AquaBounty’s Ability to Produce GE-Salmon
Industry observers have real doubt as to whether AquaBounty, the owner of the GE-salmon, has the ability to produce adequate amounts of product for the U.S. market, even if it were fully allowed to sell it to consumers today. Currently, AquaBounty’s GE-salmon is for sale in Canada, where it does not have to be labeled as genetically-engineered.
Dave Conley, AquaBounty’s Director of Communications, told Organic Insider in an email, “We sold 5 tons in Canada in Q2 of 2017. In our very limited commercial experience, the product has been very well received and judged to be of very high quality.”
A recent SEC filing by the company said, “We expect that sales of our fish will be infrequent and of small quantities until our Indiana and Rollo Bay (Canadian) facilities are operational and the fish in those facilities have matured, which is expected in the second half of 2019.”
Whether the relatively small amount of GE-fish produced is due to technical problems, capacity constraints, or an inability to produce healthy fish in quantity, no one is sure.
Refusal from Major Retailers
Already, we know that major retailers such as Whole Foods, Costco, Walmart, Aldi, Trader Joe’s and 80 others have said that they will not carry GE-salmon.
That means it will probably end up in cafeterias, restaurants, schools, prisons, and food service distributors — places where GE-labeling may be exempt.
The big attraction to GE-salmon in the first place was the company’s claim that it could grow the fish to full size in half the time of regular salmon.
However, given that this technology was invented many years ago, some believe that it may have become obsolete.
Jaydee Hanson at the Center for Food Safety said, “If you’re a salmon farmer, there are lines of salmon that now grow as fast as AquaBounty. This leads to the question as to why you would want to buy eggs from AquaBounty and deal with all of the headaches.”
The Billionaire Owner
Intrexon, the owner of AquaBounty and other GE-insect and GE-apple companies, is controlled by the multi-billionaire Randal Kirk.
A venture capital arm of Randal Kirk just agreed to give Intrexon a $100M line of credit.
There are so many variables to the GE-salmon case that it is impossible to know when it will be for sale in the U.S. market.
However, the FDA has approved GE-salmon, and even if it is delayed for several years by the courts or Congress, AquaBounty’s owner appears willing to fund this operation for as long as it takes.
This alone makes it a greater likelihood that GE-salmon is a “when” — not an “if” — scenario.
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