by James R. Scott

May 28, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS – After the pandemic delayed the sale of the first genetically engineered animal certified for human consumption in the United States, the first harvest of genetically engineered salmon occurred this week, according to AquaBounty Technologies Inc.

Several tons of mutant salmon developed by biotech business AquaBounty Technologies Inc. will now be sold at restaurants and away-from-home dining services in the Midwest and throughout the East Coast, where labeling as genetically altered is not necessary, according to company CEO Sylvia Wulf.

Samuels and Son Seafood, a Philadelphia-based seafood wholesaler, is the sole client that has announced it will sell the mutant salmon.

AquaBounty grew their mutant salmon in Albany, Indiana, in an indoor aquaculture facility.

The fish have been genetically engineered to grow twice as quickly as wild salmon, reaching market size — 8 to 12 pounds (3.6 to 5.4 kilograms) — in 18 months instead of 36.

The fish was supposed to be harvested in late 2020, according to the Massachusetts-based firm.

Wulf ascribed the delays to the pandemic’s lowered demand and market price for Atlantic salmon.

“The impact of the pandemic made us  re-examine our initial timeline … there was limited demand for salmon then,” she said. “We’re very excited about it now. We believe the timing is right and the harvest will meet the growing demand as the economy recovers.”

Although sales have commenced, the mutant fish has been greeted with opposition from environmentalists for years.

Aramark, an international food service firm, said in January that it would no longer sell mutant fish, citing environmental concerns as well as potential negative consequences for Indigenous groups who gather wild salmon.

Other significant food service firms, such as Compass Group and Sodexo, as well as numerous significant grocery merchants, seafood firms, and restaurants in the United States, made similar announcements.

Costco, Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods say they don’t sell mutant fish because they’d have to identify it as such.

Activists with the Block Corporate Salmon movement, which works to safeguard wild salmon and Indigenous rights to sustainable fishing, have led the boycott against AquaBounty mutant salmon.

“Genetically engineered salmon is a threat to the food system.  People need ways to connect with the food they’re eating, so they know where it’s coming from,” said Jon Russell, a member of the campaign and a food justice organizer with Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. “These salmon are so new — and there’s such a loud group of people who oppose it. That’s a huge red flag to consumers.”

AquaBounty is certain that the mutant fish will be well-received.

“We couldn’t get products into the market during the pandemic since most of the salmon in this country is imported,” Wulf added.  “A domestic source of supply that is not seasonal like wild salmon and is produced in a secure environment is becoming increasingly important to consumers.”

The mutant salmon is marketed by AquaBounty as disease and antibiotic free, with a lower carbon footprint and no danger of contaminating marine habitats, as is the case with traditional sea-cage farming.

The genetically engineered fish, despite their fast development, require less food than normal farmed Atlantic salmon, according to the firm.  Biofiltration devices keep the water clean in the Indiana facility’s multiple 70,000-gallon tanks, reducing the likelihood of mutant fish becoming ill and requiring medication.

In 2015, the FDA declared the AquAdvantage Salmon to be “safe and effective.”  Until December, when federal officials authorized a genetically engineered pig for food and medicinal purposes, it was the first genetically modified animal permitted for human consumption.

AquaBounty’s sprawling Indiana plant, which is presently cultivating around 450 tons of mutant salmon from eggs imported from Canada but has the capacity to raise more than twice that much, received government approval in 2018.

Others, however, have a different opinion of the mutant salmon, which has been dubbed “Frankenfish” by some detractors, amid a changing home market that increasingly values provenance, health, and sustainability, as well as wild seafood.

Companies must use a QR code, an on-package display of text, or a specified symbol to reveal genetically modified elements in food, according to the USDA labeling regulation.  The mandatory compliance takes effect in January, however the requirements do not apply to restaurants or food services.

When the mutant fish is offered in grocery stores in the coming months, Wulf said AquaBounty is committed to adopting “genetically engineered” labeling.

Judge Vince Chhabria of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in November that the FDA has the jurisdiction to regulate genetically modified animals and fish.  However, he found that the agency had failed to appropriately analyze the environmental impact of AquaBounty mutant fish escaping into the wild.

The corporation claims that escape is rare since the mutant fish are watched 24 hours a day and kept in tanks with screens, grates, netting, pumps, and chemical disinfection.  The mutant fish produced by the corporation are likewise female and sterile, preventing them from reproducing.

“Our fish are designed to thrive in the land-based environment. That’s part of what makes them unique,” Wulf said. “And we’re proud of the fact that genetically engineered allows us to bring more of a healthy nutritious product to market in a safe, secure and sustainable way.”