Commentary: Does "Super" Salmon Pass the Sniff Test?

By Arthur Caplan Ph.D.
|  Monday, Sep 20, 2010  |  Updated 7:33 PM EDT
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Does "Super" Salmon Pass the Sniff Test?

AP

Biotech types call the first genetically engineered fish — a whopper of a salmon — a food breakthrough. Critics call it ‘frankenfish.’

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Biotech types call the first genetically engineered fish — a whopper of a salmon — a food breakthrough.

Critics call it ‘frankenfish.’

But the ultimate judge should be you, the consumer.

If the FDA gives its approval this week, which there is every reason to suppose it will, these so-called ‘super’ salmon will soon be available at your local grocery stores and restaurants — likely, the first of a horde of creatures with altered genes headed toward your dinner plate. 

Some environmental groups worry that fish whose genes have been tweaked to make them grow faster — twice as fast, actually — are not safe to eat.

They want genetically modified salmon labeled so you can choose whether or not you want to eat it. 

Plus, they’re worried that the novel salmon could escape from fisheries and breed with natural salmon — potentially wiping them out.

Fish to be feared?  
So, should you fear this fish?

Vote: Would you eat genetically altered seafood?

In terms of eating, I don’t think so. In terms of environmental risk, maybe a little bit.

The genetic trick behind this new salmon is to make the fish grow big and grow fast.

Scientists at AquaBounty Technologies, a Boston biotech company, have taken genes from two other types of fish and put it in the egg of an Atlantic salmon.

A growth-hormone gene from the Chinook salmon, known as the “King” of salmon, is turned on and kept on with the help of a “promoter” gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish.

This makes for an Atlantic salmon with two genes for growth, which means it grows twice as fast — hitting market weight in 18 months rather than the typical three years.

The company sells the modified eggs to salmon growers who “farm” them — and their potentially bigger profits.

The fact that a fish has an extra gene for growth makes some people nervous. Will it trigger new allergies? Or make fish eaters fat? AquaBounty isn't required to do clinical trials on their new fish. They did do taste tests, however, and people said it tastes just fine.

There is no evidence, however, that adding a naturally occurring fish gene in an extra dose will create anything but bigger portions of salmon to eat. There is no nutritional difference between a natural Atlantic salmon and the genetically modified fish.

If anything, a faster growing fish may mean a lower price — and more people eating heart-healthy fish.

Slippery fish
But what about the problem of the genetically engineered fish going where they are not supposed to go? This is a bit more of a problem.

Today, much of the salmon eaten is grown in tanks or pens. The genetically engineered fish will be fenced in separately. And AquaBounty says the biotech fish will be farmed in places where there are no naturally occurring Atlantic salmon.

That sounds OK, but I am not sure I am buying it.

Fish are notoriously difficult to keep from escaping. They're slippery suckers. And promises to grow fish on a limited basis today may well fade when the market for selling these profitable fish heats up worldwide.

I think we need tough laws in place that require genetically engineered fish or any product to have some sort of microscopic brand or watermark that lets us know where they came from. Then if they wind up where they are not supposed to and cause any environmental damage it is clear who to blame and who to hit with a whopping fine.

So I would eat these super salmon and not worry about it at all. The fact is we have been eating genetically modified  plants for a long time now — corn, rice, tomatoes, for example — and no one has yet mutated or shown any signs of illness. 

But that leaves the hardest question: Should genetically modified fish be labeled? Do you have the right to know if you are being served genetically modified food?

The FDA does not think so. If genetically modified plants and animal are considered safe and if they are more or less equivalent to naturally occurring species, the agency sees no reason to label. I disagree.

People should have a right to know what they are eating. If for whatever personal reason you want to avoid genetically modified foods and drinks they you should be able to do so. Farmers, producers and biotech companies should come down firmly on the side of the consumer's right to know, even if not required by regulation.

In the short run, labeling may scare some people away from genetically modified salmon. But in the long run, consumers will see that they can trust the safety of genetically modified food and change their mind.

We should trust the FDA's decision, but let's verify for now by labeling this new fish whenever it is for sale.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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