Genetically engineered foods and the challenge facing developing countries: The case of AquAdvantage Salmon

By Marilyn Collins

The US Food and Drug Administration has granted approval for the sale of genetically-engineered (GM) salmon called AquAdvantage, produced by Aqua-Bounty Technologies, a Massachusetts company.

This GE salmon was developed by implanting genetic material from an eel-like species called Ocean Pout that grows all year round. The gene from the king salmon (the largest species of Salmon) was the identified growth hormone which was forced into hyperactivity using the promoter gene from an eel-like fish that can survive and grow in near-freezing waters. Usually the salmon’s growth hormone is inactivated during the colder months.

The AquAdvantage or GE salmon is considered a tool to enhance food security through rapid maturation, approximately eighteen months as compared to a three-year period with the non-genetically engineered salmon. Further, the genetically engineered salmon requires comparatively less feed for its growth and maturation. The GE salmon is therefore considered an efficient and cost effective way to produce a nutritional food source, all year round.

Marilyn Collins
Marilyn Collins

The FDA scientists scrutinized and extensively evaluated the data submitted by the manufacturer, AquaBounty Technologies, and other peer-reviewed data, to assess whether AquAdvantage salmon met the criteria for approval established by the food law as it relates to safety. The data demonstrated that the inserted genes remained stable over several generations of fish, that food from the GE salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish, and the salmon meets the sponsor’s claim about faster growth.

In addition, FDA assessed the environmental impacts of approving this application and found that the approval would not have a significant impact on the environment, and prevent foil any possibility for interbreeding. This was guaranteed due to the multiple containment measures the company will use in the land-based facilities in Panama and Canada making it extremely unlikely that the GE fish could escape and establish themselves in the wild.

However, environmental campaigners continue to question whether the GM material is safe for humans to consume and fear the sterile salmon will mutate in the wild and be able to breed. The researchers concluded that GE fish and wild fish interbreeding will be improbable and offered reassurances that there will be no opportunities for polluting the wild genomes with engineered sequences. Since currently, the only locations approved by FDA to grow fish are in the aboveground freshwater tanks high in the Panamanian mountains.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms that is, plants, animals or microorganisms, in which the genetic material deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination for example, through the introduction of a gene from a different organism. Different terms such as genetically engineered (GE), genetically modified (GM) and genetically modified organisms (GMO) are used interchangeably to describe foods made from plants or animals that have had their genetic

makeup altered using biotechnology and bioengineering that introduce foreign or synthetic deoxyribonucleic acid DNA into the relevant plant or animal cells in order to achieve certain traits.

Reportedly 86% of corn, 93% of soybeans and 95% of sugar beets grown in the US are GE.

Other GE crops include squash, papaya, tomatoes and rice. GE ingredients, like these, are also commonly found in processed foods. GE foods are supposedly designed to promote human health. The most visible of these is Golden Rice, which carries three genes from the daffodil flower that produce beta-carotene, and is viewed by some as a panacea for combating vitamin deficiency in Third World countries. Raw potatoes have been modified to carry a vaccine against a strain of diarrhea-causing E. coli and, more recently, scientists in the UK and the Netherlands

have used gene technology to increase levels of flavonols, a class of powerful antioxidants, in tomato peel. The researchers believe the fruit could help ward off heart disease and cancer.

The ability to manipulate plants by introducing new genes promises innovative solutions to these and many other real-world problems. Yet there is considerable opposition to the use of genetically modified plants for food production and other uses.

Genetic engineering has been lauded as offering time-saving method for producing larger, higher-quality crops with less effort and cost. Yet such benefits must be balanced against the risks of changing the genetic makeup of organisms.

At the same time, many consumers also want to know whether their food or any ingredients in their food is derived from genetically engineered sources. Although the law does not require food containing ingredients derived from these salmon to be labelled as GE, the FDA recognizes that many consumers are interested in this information, and some food manufacturers will want to make the distinction.

Thus FDA has promulgated the voluntary labelling guidance to address foods with information concerning whether the food was or was not produced using genetic engineering, in an honest and truthful way. The FDA is providing this guidance to assist food and feed manufacturers that wish to voluntarily label their plant-derived food products or ingredients, for humans or for animals, as having been made with or without bioengineering.

Thus, if a GE derived food presents characteristics that are substantially different from those of comparable foods with differences in the basic nature of the food, substantial differences in the consequences of use, material differences in the nutritional properties, or contained any allergensthat the consumer would not expect to be in the food, then additional labeling would be required.

Accordingly, with regard to the salmon the FDA offers the following guidance:

* If a food derived from genetically engineered salmon was significantly different from its non-GE counterpart, such that the common or usual name no longer adequately described the new food, the name would have to be changed to a term that adequately and sufficiently described the new food.

* If food derived from genetically engineered salmon had a significantly different nutritional property compared to its non-GE counterpart, the labeling of that food would have to describe such difference.

* If food derived from genetically engineered salmon contained an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present, the presence of that allergen would have to be disclosed on the food label.

Food manufacturers may label food products or food ingredients as being derived from salmon that have not been genetically engineered, as long as such information is truthful and not misleading. For food products or food ingredients derived from salmon that was not genetically engineered, examples of statements that manufacturers may voluntarily use include:


* Not genetically engineered.

* Not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology.

* We do not use Atlantic salmon produced using modern biotechnology.


The US Food and Drug Administration does not require foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labelled because it considers them “functionally equivalent” to conventionally grown crops The vote in November 2013 by the food industry in the USA was 54.8% opposed to labelling and 45.2% in favour of labelling GE foods. Those in favour of labelling argue that consumers have a democratic right to information about what is in their foods so that they can make informed decisions—especially when that information relates to foods that some scientists say are linked to health risks.

The argument is that GMOs may pose a unique threat to consumers because scientific research has yet to determine the long-term health effects of GE foods. They also claim that animal studies link consumption of GE foods to biological and behavioural changes. Other reported concerns are that GMOs may harbour allergens, introduce new allergens into the food supply and contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Despite this, bioengineered products designed specifically to promote human health continue to show up. It is pivotal for third world countries to be continuously vigilant and informed since countries but they may be knowingly or unknowingly be consumers of such foods.