Activists put pressure on genetically modified salmon

Consumer and environmental activists, facing likely defeat in their bid to block government approval of the first genetically engineered salmon, are trying a different tack to keep the fish off America’s dinner plates: Getting retailers not to sell it.

And they’re making headway.

Some of the nation’s most recognizable chains – including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Target – have agreed in recent months to steer clear of the fish. A spokeswoman for Safeway, the nation’s second-largest grocery chain, said the chain doesn’t have “any plans to carry GE salmon.” Activists are pressing Kroger, the country’s largest grocer, to make a similar commitment.

“The goal is to make sure there is not an available market for genetically engineered seafood,” said Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth, an international network of environmental organizations helping to lead the effort to make the fish unwelcome. “People don’t want it, and markets are going to follow what people want.”

The Food and Drug Administration, which has been reviewing the genetically modified salmon for years, has strongly signaled it intends to approve the fish, making it the first genetically modified animal cleared for human consumption. The decision, which could come this fall, would be a milestone not only for the decades-long fish controversy but also for the heated debate over the development and marketing of other genetically modified foods.

AquaBounty Technologies, based in Massachusetts, first applied for permission to sell its genetically altered salmon in 1995. Its AquAdvantage salmon consists of an Atlantic salmon containing a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The result: A fish that grows to market size in about half the time as regular salmon.

For years, opponents have argued there’s not enough data to prove the salmon is safe to eat. They have also warned there could be devastating environmental consequences if the fish were to escape confinement and breed with wild salmon.

The FDA has concluded, however, that the genetically modified salmon does not pose a threat to the environment and is “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.”

With the agency close to approving the fish, critics want to make it hard for consumers to find. They are urging supporters to “create a tsunami of messages” – via social media, emails and telephone calls – to pressure retailers not to stock it, and they have promised to reward companies that go along by praising them “on our websites, in social media, and in the press.”

Besides Friends of the Earth, groups such as the Center for Food Safety and Consumers Union are involved in the effort.

“Companies are going to follow what other companies do,” said Perls, who added that organizers have also begun approaching some chefs and restaurants about taking the anti-AquAdvantage pledge. “No one wants to be seen as an outlier.”

The campaign infuriates AquaBounty chief executive Ron Stotish, who says that critics are engaging in “fear-mongering” and that his salmon could help reduce the over-fishing of wild salmon populations, bolster the world’s food supply and use fewer resources.

“What we’ve been seeing for a long time is dishonesty, fabrication and malicious acts from these groups… . It’s really frustrating,” Stotish said in an interview. “What these groups are trying to do is prevent people from having the right to choose. Frankly, I think that’s wrong.”

Stotish said critics have tried to create an impression not only that his company’s product is unsafe but also that it will flood the market immediately after approval by the FDA. In reality, he said, it could take years for the small company to ramp up production to a level that would affect the market in any noticeable way. He also said quashing the market for AquAdvantage salmon in the United States could drive businesses developing other types of genetically altered fish to countries with different food-safety standards.

AquaBounty has flirted with bankruptcy during the many years it has waited for the government to rule on the salmon. Aside from airing his frustrations, Stotish said his company has little legal recourse, and few resources, to fight back against its many opponents, who include the nation’s salmon fishing industry.

“These are coordinated campaigns… . We’re facing these organizations that are well-financed, well-funded and spending significant amounts of money,” he said. “We’re 12 people, and eight of them are feeding fish.”

The eggs for the salmon are produced at a facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada and shipped to a facility in Panama, where they are harvested and processed in a mountainous region high above sea level. AquaBounty has said that even if it expands, its sterile, all-female fish would be raised in land-based facilities, eliminating the possibility that they would escape containment and reproduce in the wild – an assessment that the FDA agreed with.

Late last year, the FDA lifted one of the final regulatory hurdles to approval, saying that the altered salmon posed no more risks to the environment than conventional salmon. Since then, the agency has received nearly 2 million public comments on its findings, a large number of which urged the FDA to reject AquaBounty’s application. An FDA official declined to comment.

For both sides, the stakes are high.

Critics argue that if AquaBounty’s salmon wins FDA’s blessing, it could open the floodgates for other genetically engineered animals, each with its own health and environmental concerns. Hence the urgency in undercutting the market for such products before it even exists. “This is a precedent-setting approval, should it occur,” Perls said. “The fewer the opportunities for sale, the better.” Kroger didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether it would sell the fish.

For AquaBounty, it’s partly a matter of economic survival. But Stotish said FDA approval also could eventually lead to a more efficient food supply and create jobs in states such as South Dakota, where the governor has said officials “are making concerted efforts to be the home to future animal biotechnology companies, including AquaBounty Technologies.”

Despite the pledges some retailers have made not to sell his salmon, Stotish said he believes the companies will reconsider in coming years if the price is right and consumers regard it as safe and healthy.

“If it’s not a good product, people won’t buy it,” he said. “All we’re asking for is the opportunity.”

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