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U.S. grocery stores may soon carry a fast-growing GM alternative to conventional Atlantic salmon (above).

U.S. grocery stores may soon carry a fast-growing GM alternative to conventional Atlantic salmon (above).

Peter Whyte/CSIRO

Updated: Genetically modified salmon wins FDA approval

A fast-growing salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies today became the first genetically modified (GM) animal to win the blessing of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Its approval, nearly 20 years after the biotech company first approached the agency, marks the end of a long struggle for the right to sell the fish in grocery stores. But it probably doesn’t mark the end of a contentious debate over its safety.

The AquAdvantage salmon—which grows twice as fast as non-GM Atlantic salmon, thanks to the overexpression of a growth hormone—has long been expected to gain approval. In 2010, FDA announced that the salmon is safe to eat, and a draft assessment released in 2012 found that it is unlikely to have any harmful impact on the environment.

But those conclusions haven’t quelled fears from environmental groups that the fish could become invasive if released into the wild. Research on the ability of the GM salmon to outcompete wild varieties has been inconclusive, but regulators decided that an escape from the AquaBounty facilities is unlikely.

Although the decision is a landmark in biotechnology regulation, it’s also a very narrow one, says Martin Smith, an environmental economist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. FDA has signed off only on AquaBounty’s current breeding and growing setup, in which fish are bred at a facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada, and sterilized female eggs are flown to the highlands of Panama to be grown to market size. If the product takes off and the company wants to add facilities, these would need to get approved separately. “It’s not clear that it would be a simple process by any means,” Smith says.

With the current regulatory battle behind it, AquaBounty still has to win over grocery stores and shoppers wary of GM products. “It’s difficult to disentangle consumer’s attitudes from their understanding of the technology,” Smith says. “There are a lot of politics of [GM organisms] that might inform people's decision-making that might not have anything to do whatsoever with the technology.”

And because the new product can be labeled as farmed Atlantic salmon without mention of the genetic modification, consumers may not know they’re eating it unless retailers explicitly refuse to buy it, he says. Target, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have already said they won’t sell the AquAdvantage salmon.

*Update, 19 November, 2:30 p.m.: This story has been expanded to include material from additional interviews.