Massachusetts-based AquaBounty obtained approval for its genetically engineered (GE) salmon back in 2015. But things came to a screeching halt soon after.
Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski and a number of other outspoken opponents began a vocal campaign against the commercialization of the salmon, based in large part on the decision of the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) that products featuring the fish wouldn’t require a labeling disclosure.
Phrases like ‘Frankenfish’ appeared in headlines discussing whether AquaBounty should be required to provide such a disclosure. After a wave of media attention surrounding the topic, retailers like Costco, Trader Joe’s, Aldi’s, Whole Foods, Target, and Kroger released statements announcing that they wouldn’t sell AquaBounty’s GE salmon.
In 2016, the FDA issued an import alert that prevented AquaBounty from bringing its AquAdvantage salmon into the US from Canada and South America, where they are reared. The GE salmon combines a growth hormone-regulating gene from Pacific Chinook Salmon with genes from Atlantic Salmon and Ocean Pout. The main difference with other varieties of farmed salmon is the growth rate: An AquAdvantage fish takes roughly 18 months to reach harvest size, compared to 24 months for its counterparts.
In April 2019, the FDA lifted its import ban, saying that the new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard divested the agency of its authority to issue labeling guidance – though it said the new law would likely require AquaBounty to provide a label disclosure anyway.
Murkowski has continued her efforts to attach targeted requirements to the production and sale of the GE salmon. For AquaBounty, however, that doesn’t seem to be an issue.
“We absolutely plan to label it,” Sylvia Wulf, CEO of AquaBounty, tells AFN. “We did a lot of research last year, both qualitative and quantitative, to better understand consumer perception. What we found […] is that if you give consumers the facts around whether it is safe, whether it tastes good, and whether it is affordable, then the answer to whether they will eat it is yes.”
When pressed on the safety of producing and consuming AquAdvantage salmon, Wulf points to 25 years of testing on multiple generations of the variety to ensure that there are no unforeseen changes due to genetic modification. Under the US’s Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, the GE salmon must be the same or substantially similar to its conventional counterpart in order to obtain regulatory approval. This means that the FDA largely looks at the end result of the biotech process used, rather than focusing on the process itself, Wulf says.
AquaBounty recently began the first commercial-scale harvest of its conventional Atlantic Salmon raised at its Indiana farm. At the same time, it’s in the process of growing out the first batch of AquAdvantage salmon on US soil. The fish should be ready for consumption around mid- to late-October throughout the Midwest.
The conventional harvest may not seem significant in light of the company’s focus on GE salmon, but for the last four years, the startup has had a lot of time on its hands to focus on other aspects of the business.
“We bought the farm in 2017, refurbished it, and it was sitting there,” Wulf says. “We didn’t know when the import alert would lift and we’d be allowed to bring eggs into the US. We thought, ‘Okay, it’s ready, we know how to farm. Let’s bring in conventional salmon and start raising them so that when the import alert is lifted, we can bring in the AquAdvantage salmon.'”
This process also involved cultivating relationships with supply chain partners who would not only purchase the conventional salmon but would be on board to purchase the GE salmon once it was approved and ready for harvest.
Then, Covid-19 happened.
“The majority of our salmon is sold through foodservice channels, as is about 55% of all salmon. Foodservice has been the hardest hit by the pandemic,” Wulf says.
“The good news is that we don’t have a huge production coming out of the facility so we don’t have a ton to sell. What we always planned to do was create these relationships, processes, and customers with conventional salmon to make sure our supply chain is in good shape so that by the time we get to AquAdvantage we are harvesting, packaging, shipping, and doing everything we need to do to be successful.”
The upside of Covid-19, however, is the ability to show how the fast-growing salmon could offer a more sustainable, affordable, and abundant pipeline for seafood. The supply chain for seafood in the US completely broke down during the early onset of the pandemic because most of it is imported, Wulf explains.
Constructing sustainable methods for growing the fish has been important for the startup, which is in the process of selecting a single recirculating aquaculture system. It’s also engaged in nutrition studies to optimize feed programs and is looking at feed ingredients like algae-based oils.
“We are recirculating 97% of the water. It’s antibiotic-free, and not exposing the salmon to chemicals, disease, or predators like you see with some large sea cage operations where those things are just a fact of life,” Wulf says.
“We are also not decimating the wild-caught populations through overfishing. We are raising it in a safe, secure environment that allows us to conserve water and natural resources. We have a lot smaller carbon footprint than salmon flown in from Chile or Norway.”
AquaBounty is now in the process of selecting its next farm site, which it says will be ten times as big as its Indiana farm.
Although the FDA’s decision to lift the import alert constituted a major milestone for AquaBounty, a few big hurdles loom on the horizon. Among them is the issue of whether or not retailers will be on board, especially considering the widespread opposition to the product over the past few years.
“Several of them have said that it’s about giving consumers the choice. It’s not saying ‘no’ to something simply because there is a vocal opponent,” Wulf says.
“It’s simply saying because we have a vocal opponent, let’s give consumers the chance to decide. I don’t think we will ever sell to Whole Foods, which is a big mistake on their part because there is a lot of misunderstanding around GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and we are the most sustainably raised salmon available.”
As for consumer acceptance, Wulf is optimistic. The brand recently launched a social media campaign to boost consumer education and recognizes the hardships that come with commercializing any new product. Still, consumers can be a fickle bunch – and the topic of bioengineered food is a divisive one in many circles.
“Consumer acceptance is to be determined. But what we have found is that consumers are hearing more about biotechnology and how it can address climate change, treat animal diseases that are zoonotic and can leap to humans, and the work going on with vaccines and therapeutics,” Wulf says.
“If there was ever a time we felt like we would get a more favorable reception, I would say it’s now.”