Genetically Engineered Salmon and the Pledge for GE-Free Seafood

Created on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Today, Greenpeace U.S.A. released the seventh edition of its Carting Away the Oceans report, which rates U.S. seafood retailers on sustainability. Once again, Whole Foods and FishWise partner Safeway held the top two spots, trading places from the 2012 report. One of the issues highlighted in the report is the likely FDA approval of genetically engineered (GE) salmon and the potentially grave risk it poses to wild salmon populations. Also today, the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society released a study conducted by McGill University that found that GE salmon (salmo salar) successfully interbred with brown trout (salmo trutta) to create a hybrid species that outcompeted both transgenic (GE) salmon and non-transgenic (wild) salmon. With many salmon stocks struggling globally, the introduction of a “super predator” GE salmon could have potentially devastating effects on a commercially important keystone species

GE organisms and the labeling of such products became a hot button issue in 2010 when the company AquaBounty applied for FDA approval of GE salmon, a fish designed to grow twice as fast as its native counterparts. As a result, more than 300 organizations and food companies, including FishWise, submitted letters to the FDA voicing serious concerns regarding the environmental and health risks associated with the product, in addition to more than 400,000 opposition comments from the general public. The effort to halt FDA approval of GE salmon continues, with almost 2,000,000 opposition comments submitted to the agency by April 2013, at the close of the most recent public comment period.


In 2012, the issue was magnified in California with the introduction of a ballot initiative requiring labeling of most GE food products. The Prop 37 campaign brought together an unprecedented coalition of organizations, consumer groups, activists, farmers, and retailers. Though outspent 5:1, nearly 50% of the California electorate voted for the proposition (more than 6 million “yes” votes) and polls show that more than 60% now favor labeling in CA. Importantly, this constituency is now mobilized and working in California and across the nation on new and improved ballot initiatives, state bills for labeling, and education campaigns. These groups are both praising companies that supported Prop 37 or that have pledged to not sell GE products, and are conversely critical of, and vocal towards, companies that are doing the opposite. 

In the wake of Prop 37’s narrow defeat, nearly half of all U.S. states have introduced bills requiring labeling or prohibition of genetically engineered foods. Major food and retail companies (including Walmart, Pepsico, and ConAgra) are taking notice and starting to support national GE labeling to ensure that there are uniform labeling laws, rather than those that would vary state by state.

Part of this growing movement is the effort to secure commitments from major grocery retailers to not sell genetically engineered seafood. Fifty-nine retailers, including FishWise partners Target and Hy-Vee, will not sell GE salmon. With the likely FDA approval of GE salmon approaching, allowing for the first-ever GE animal to enter the human food supply, it is expected that a pressure campaign will soon be launched to negatively target retailers that have not taken the GE seafood pledge.

There are many reasons for retailers to support the GE-Free Seafood campaign. These include the environmental and health risks of the products themselves, and the risks to company brands and reputations should they not join the campaign. In a 2010 survey, 65% of consumers say that they would not eat GE fish if allowed onto the market. Because retailers do not currently sell any GE seafood products, there would be few financial implications associated with taking the pledge. Additionally, because there is no labeling requirement, and growing consumer opposition, if companies do not sign the pledge and its customers are unable to distinguish between GE and non-GE seafood, sales of current offerings could be severely impacted. 

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