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BREAKING: AquaBounty in murky water after accusations of safety violations at GM salmon plant

October 25, 2022

  • A former employee of genetically engineered (GE) salmon producer AquaBounty has alleged that the company has committed numerous worker and consumer safety violations at its Indiana production facility.
  • Braydon Humphrey shared photos and videos documenting contaminated water, toxic chemicals, and environmental damage, according to the Block Corporate Salmon campaign.
  • The evidence raises questions about how agrifood will regulate production as tools like biotech and novel farming systems become more widespread.
  • AquaBounty says the claims are “not accurate.”

On background:

AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage Salmon (AAS) is the first GE animal approved for human consumption in the US. But the product’s path to market has been filled with hiccups and false starts.

  • AquaBounty’s raises its Atlantic salmon in freshwater in land-based, controlled aquaculture systems.
  • The company adds a growth hormone-regulating gene from the Pacific Chinook to its salmon as well as a promoter gene from an ocean pout; the resulting GE salmon can grow year-round instead of just in spring and summer.
  • The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved AAS in 2015; consumer backlash and an import ban ensued.
  • The ban was lifted in 2019, only for AquaBounty to come under fire again in 2020 when the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the FDA violated environmental laws in approving the GE salmon.
  • Despite this, AquaBounty Technologies has been “running business as usual,” according to Block Corporate Salmon.
  • Humphrey was an employee at AquaBounty’s Indiana farm from December 2018 – January 2020.

What the photos and videos show:

Humphrey shared photos and videos that show a range of alleged violations. They include from mishandling of chemicals at the facility to unsafe water conditions in the fish takes and potential fish escapes:

  • Photos show “persistent contamination” of salmon tanks with unsafe levels of fiberglass particles and heavy metals.
  • Videos show leaks of aerosolized hydrochloric acid, an issue Humphrey says continued even after he reported it.
  • There was a lack of safe drinking water and basic first aid materials for employees onsite.
  • The plant discharged high levels of ammonia in water into the surrounding watershed.
  • AquaBounty lost one third of its initial GE stock during its first-feeding systems due to fungus that infected the fish.
  • AquaBounty eventually fired Humphrey within a week of him contacting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Humphrey then filed an official complaint with OSHA, which dismissed it.

Why it matters:

“Both GE Salmon and land-based large aquaculture facilities are ‘new’ and ‘cutting edge,'” Block Corporate Salmon member and food justice organizer Jon Russell tells AFN. “GE Salmon is being touted as this revolutionary thing to save fish. Land-based aquaculture facilities [promise] to keep oceans clean and have clean fish. To see employees covered in hydrochloric acid, murky waters, the mortality rate [of the fish] and immense amount of ammonia in these waters ruins all of that.”

He says that even places where there is “a lot of waste” in the ocean don’t see the levels of toxicity found in some land-based aquaculture facilities.

There are also nutrition concerns around these fish. According to the FDA’s assessment, GE salmon contains 40% higher levels of a hormone linked to some cancers.

Activists believe AquaBounty releasing GE salmon into the US food system would open the floodgates to more GE animal products and facilities that operate with a “production at all costs” mindset.

For Block Corporate Salmon members, there is also a major cultural element at risk. Many indigenous tribes, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest US, consider the salmon as sacred and GE salmon “a violation of Indigenous rights,” according to Russell. “They see themselves as salmon, and [GE salmon] feels like a genetic modification of themselves.”

Environmentally speaking, these Tribes along with many others also view GE salmon as a risk to natural ecologies and indigenous food and farming systems.

“We are unique in that we’re bringing the indigenous perspective to this,” says Russell, who has a background in engineering. He is quick to add that Block Corporate Salmon members have a high respect for science and innovation if it can coexist peacefully with cultural values.

“By Western standards we have a ton of qualifications, we just also recognize the cultural impact as being important as the technical implications,” he says. “Right now, [AquaBounty] is failing both.”

AquaBounty’s response:

AFN reached out to AquaBounty about the evidence and received the following response from president and CEO Sylvia Wulf:

“AquaBounty is an aquaculture company raising fresh Atlantic salmon in safe, secure, and sustainable land-based farms in North America. The allegations in the article are not accurate. These unverified claims, made by a former employee over two and a half years ago, are being raised by an anti-GE group opposed to our salmon.

“AquaBounty takes such allegations seriously. We are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and operate our facilities to very high standards covering food safety and consumer health, worker safety, animal welfare, and environmental impact. In fact, we recently completed a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) audit of our processing facility with high marks for the way we operate. This testifies to the high standards we hold for consumer health and safety. It’s unfortunate that these allegations were published without validation, but they have been proven to have no merit.

“Our land-based farms use recirculated water and don’t contribute to ocean pollution or harm sensitive ocean habitats which are so important to wild salmon. Extensive physical containment and biological security barriers ensure our AquaBounty salmon are safe, protected from escape, and cannot reproduce with wild salmon. We are raising salmon on land to further protect and preserve wild salmon populations and do so in an efficient and sustainable way.”

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