Just two months after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved genetically engineered salmon for consumption, on Jan. 29, the FDA issued a ban forbidding all genetically engineered salmon from entering the U.S. marketplace until the agency finalizes guidelines on how GMO salmon should be labeled. A report in The Washington Post adds that the ban applies only to fiscal year 2016.
FDA's action was prompted in response to language in a federal spending bill recently passed by Congress instructing regulators to forbid the sale of GMO salmon until labeling guidelines are in place. The Washington Post points out that this process could potentially take years.
In November, after a prolonged regulatory battle, the FDA approved AquaAdvantage salmon, produced by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty. The Atlantic salmon contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout, a combination to help it grow large enough for consumption in 18 months rather than the typical three years.
According to The Washington Post report, the agency initially said it could require additional labeling of genetically engineered foods only if "there is a material difference − such as a different nutritional profile" between the altered food and its natural counterpart. In the case of the AquaAdvantage salmon, the FDA found no such differences.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been pushing for a labeling requirement for genetically engineered salmon, even threatening to withhold the nomination of Dr. Robert Califf as chief until something is done. She said in a release that she hopes the FDA’s import ban is a harbinger for action.
"This is a huge step in our fight against 'Frankenfish'," she said. "I firmly believe that mandatory labeling guidelines must be put in place as soon as possible, so consumers know what it is they are purchasing. It seems the FDA has begun to listen, and I hope this is a sign that the agency plans to develop these necessary guidelines."
The mandate promises guidelines only. "During fiscal year 2016 the FDA shall not allow the introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any food that contains genetically engineered salmon," the mandate reads, "until FDA publishes final labeling guidelines for informing consumers of such content."
Currently, the FDA allows for voluntary labeling of genetically modified fish, but does not require it.
Murkowski and others say the FDA should require that genetically modified salmon be labeled as such; customers, they say, won’t be able to tell the difference between genetically modified salmon and wild salmon if placed next to each other at the retail level.
Politicians in Alaska reportedly doubt the science and fear the economic consequences. Fishermen there that deal in wild sockeye salmon would have to compete with genetically altered fish, which involves splicing salmon and ocean pout genes to grow at twice the rate of wild salmon.
The effort marks a victory, albeit a temporary one, for activists and commercial fishermen who have raised concerns about whether the AquaBounty fish is safe to eat and whether potential environmental harm could result if any of the modified salmon made their way into ocean waters and mated with wild salmon. Massachusetts-based AquaBounty maintains that its fish, which are all female, sterile and currently raised only in land-locked facilities in Canada and Panama, could actually reduce pressure on wild stocks and prevent the over-fishing of Atlantic salmon. The FDA has said its approval was "based on sound science and a comprehensive review," and that regulators are confident the genetically altered fish is safe to eat.