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Genetically engineered salmon unlikely to appear in Maine markets

PORTLAND PRESS-HERALD

Genetically engineered salmon unlikely to appear in Maine markets
Dubbed a 'game-changer' by the company and 'Frankenfish' by opponents, the gene-altered salmon grow twice as fast as conventional farm-raised salmon.
BY KEVIN MILLER STAFF WRITER
kmiller@pressherald.com | @KevinMillerPPH | 207-791-6312

Federal regulators declared genetically engineered salmon safe to eat Thursday, but consumers in Maine shouldn’t expect to see the controversial product in the supermarket seafood section any time soon, if ever.

After years of review and intense opposition from environmental and consumer groups, the Food and Drug Administration granted approval Thursday to a Massachusetts company’s plans to sell farm-raised Atlantic salmon that are genetically modified to grow faster. AquaBounty Technologies’ salmon is the first gene-altered animal product approved by the FDA and could open the door to other products despite a robust debate in the U.S. over the safety of genetically modified foods.

But several food stores as well as companies that either grow or sell salmon products in Maine indicated Thursday that they do not plan to carry or utilize the fish officially known as AquAdvantage Salmon but dubbed “Frankenfish” by opponents.

“Hannaford will not carry this product when it becomes commercially available,” Eric Blom, spokesman for the Scarborough-based Hannaford supermarket chain, said in a statement. “We do not believe that customers want us to add this item to our seafood offerings. We already offer a wide variety of conventional salmon and salmon products that our customers enjoy.”

Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target and several other national chains with stores in Maine have also said they do not plan to sell the genetically modified fish. A spokeswoman for Shaw’s supermarkets did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Likewise, a representative of Ducktrap River of Maine, which sells its smoked salmon products in grocery stores around the country, said neither the Belfast-based company nor its parent company are considering using AquAdvantage Salmon.

“Even though it has been approved, I’m skeptical how much it will be used,” said Don Cynewski, general manager at Ducktrap River. “It’s not something that we feel fits into the philosophy of the way we do business.”

AquaBounty’s salmon reportedly grow twice as fast as conventional farm-raised fish – reaching market size in roughly 18 months – by “enhancing” Atlantic salmon with genes from Pacific Chinook salmon that allow it to produce more growth hormone. The company claims the fish have the same taste, texture and smell as farm-raised Atlantic salmon.

Salmon production is an enormous business, with aquaculture operations around the globe producing more than 100 tons of Atlantic salmon annually. Farm-raised fish account for more than 90 percent of the Atlantic salmon market. And with just two small, land-based operations, AquaBounty’s initial contribution to the market is expected to be tiny.

The FDA decision comes more than 20 years after AquaBounty began developing the genetically engineered salmon and five years after the agency began reviewing the proposed product.

“After an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, FDA has arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious,” the agency said.

Company officials predicted their salmon could be on store shelves within two years. At this point, the fish will only be grown in two land-based fish farms in Panama and Canada, reducing the risks that gene-altered salmon could escape into the wild and attempt to interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon, which are an endangered species in the U.S.

“AquAdvantage Salmon is a game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats,” Ronald Stolish, CEO of the Maynard, Massachusetts-based company, said in a statement. “Using land-based aquaculture systems, this rich source of protein and other nutrients can be farmed close to major consumer markets in a more sustainable manner.”

The only salmon farming company operating in Maine, Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture, has said it “rejects transgenic salmon production.” Cooke has permits to operate in 25 locations in Down East, Maine.

Likewise, the Maine Aquaculture Association said it will not support genetically modified salmon until four criteria are met: consumers ask for it, competitors begin using it, a more rigorous assessment of environmental impacts is completed, and adopting the gene-altered fish makes sense for Maine. Sebastian Belle, executive director of the trade association, said it has not heard consumers or the industry asking for the product.

“So unless all of four of those criteria have been satisfied, we don’t see the association reassessing that position,” Belle said.

Opposition to the fish in Maine is not surprising, given the state’s thriving “natural foods” scene as well as Maine’s rich historical link to the Atlantic salmon. The fish once clogged the state’s major rivers and supported large commercial and recreational fisheries. But today the Penobscot River is the only U.S. river that still has a salmon spawning run of any note and commercial fishing for wild Atlantic salmon has been largely shut down internationally.

Maine is one of a handful of states to pass laws that would require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, although that law will only take effect after five nearby states adopt similar proposals.

Opponents of the genetically engineered salmon proposal also expressed disappointment that the FDA will not require AquaBounty to label the product as a GMO. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins have supported requiring GMO labels on the fish.

“I’m deeply disturbed to see FDA take this unprecedented step towards approving genetically modified salmon, which could open the floodgates to allowing other GMO animals in the marketplace,” Pingree, D-District 1, said in a statement. “And as if genetically engineering animals wouldn’t be bad enough, consumers will be denied the right to know whether or not their salmon is GMO. At a time when consumers are demanding to know more about what’s in their food, FDA is caving to industry pressure and taking a dramatic and dangerous step in the opposite direction.”

Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the agency “has thoroughly analyzed and evaluated the data and information” submitted by AquaBounty, according to The Associated Press. To approve an engineered animal for human consumption, the agency reviews a company’s data and must determine that the food is safe to eat, that the engineering is safe for the fish and that the company’s claim – in this case, faster growth – is accurate.