On March 20, 2013, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi, together comprising 2,000 stores coast to coast, pledged they would not sell genetically modified (GM) salmon, even if the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves that new beast for consumption by humans. The supermarket chains made clear that their policy responds to consumer and other citizen groups opposed to the fish.

A spokeswoman for Aldi, a chain with 1,200 stores running from Kansas and Texas to the east coast, stated that, “Our current definition of sustainable seafood specifies the exclusion of genetically modified organisms.”

This announcement represents the first split in the industry coalition of grocers and agribusiness giants that spent over $40 million during 2012 convincing voters to defeat California’s Proposition 37 ballot measure to label genetically modified (GM) foods.

The combined pledge from the food chains came after 30 organizations, including Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, and the Center for Food Safety, wrote to the retailers asking them to promise not to carry GM salmon. On a wider matter, Whole Foods had previously announced that all food on its shelves from GM animals and crops would have to be labeled by 2018, an action that meets the intent of Proposition 37, as well as pending initiatives in other states, including Washington.

In January, we described the controversy over GM salmon: the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested public comment on its deliberations over salmon genetically modified to grow twice as fast as their natural counterparts. The FDA was considering an application from AquaBounty, a gene-splicing company, to approve the GM salmon as a new veterinary drug.  Opponents believed that the fish, which Time magazine designated an “invention,” should be regulated as a new food product, because FDA approval would allow the GM salmon and its processed commodities, such as canned fish, to be sold in grocery stores for human consumption.

To produce the unprecedented “invented” GM fish, AquaBounty spliced a Chinook growth hormone gene into an Atlantic salmon, coupled with a DNA “promoter” sequence from a pout, a fish that resembles an eel. The result is a fish that grows year round since the promoter DNA keeps the growth hormone gene constantly “on,” regardless of the season. As a consequence, the AquaBounty salmon grows much faster than natural fish, and the genetic splicing produces a fish that more closely resembles a Chinook than the original natural Atlantic salmon.

In response to Sightline’s inquiries, AquaBounty offered to provide a photo comparing the GM fish to its natural counterpart in return for fees and other restrictions. Sightline declined to pay, so we cannot incorporate the photo into this post.  However, the company has provided pictures to press outlets, and consequently the photo, showing a huge GM product as compared to its natural species, has gone viral in the news media. Based on the gene splicing and the clear size difference, the designation Frankenfish seems apt, even if one accepts arguments that the GM fish are safe to eat. Opponents argue that GM fish should at least be labeled as such, an action the FDA did not require in its preliminary finding on AquaBounty’s application for approval.

  • Time magazine heralded the GM salmon on the grounds that consumers enjoy salmon, but natural stocks are declining. But as Senator Begich (AK) responded, a more natural approach would protect natural habitat and water quality, and manage wild stocks sustainably. In addition, salmon support multiple species in their habitats. Most salmon die shortly after spawning, and their carcasses provide food for predators and scavengers. The carcasses also attract insects, which in turn serve as food for young salmon. Salmon ecology also extends to Native Americans, especially in the Northwest, where treaty provisions include the right of “taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds.” In short, protecting wild salmon stocks for fisheries would also yield multiple benefits for the Northwest’s ecosystems.

    GM salmon may provide food for grocery shoppers, but this manufactured creature depends on human handlers to move its eggs by ship or plane to tanks overseas, where the fish will grow and be processed for sale. Natural salmon seem a much better choice for supporting other wildlife in dynamic ecosystems, as well as for supporting commercial and Tribal fisheries.

    In February 2013, the FDA announced that it was extending the comment period on its GM salmon findings for 60 days, in response to requests from the public for more time. Among those requests was a joint letter from both senators in Alaska (Begich and Murkowski), Oregon (Wyden and Merkley), and Washington (Murray and Cantwell). They were joined in the letter by Senator Barbara Mukulski (MD),who has a particular interest in programs related to oceans, including fisheries.

    The FDA’s decision means that until April 26 citizens have the opportunity to submit comments to the agency electronically via this web link.


    John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant who occasionally submits material that Sightline staff turn into blog posts.