Genetically modified fish to eat growing in the Midwest

ByChuck Goudie and Christine Tressel WLS logo
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
Genetically modified fish to eat growing in the Midwest
The nation's first genetically modified fish for human consumption are growing inside an Indiana aquafarm. The controversy over the salmon is also growing as advocacy groups take legal action and warn of unclear package labels.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The ABC 7 I-Team went inside a Midwest farm where futuristic food is coming to life.

AquaBounty Technologies will be the first company in the United States to produce genetically modified fish for humans to eat.

The 40 acre farm is just outside Albany, Indiana, which is about 10 miles northeast of Muncie.

There are multiple safeguards required as each building is entered and exited. Visitors must wear lab coats and boots, and in some buildings you have to sign a guest book. There are strict guidelines, too; live fish can never leave this farm over fears they could damage the wild salmon population.

The genetically modified salmon eggs are imported from Canada. Each shipment can be upwards of 90,000 eggs and will have to clear U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspections at Chicago O'Hare Airport.

When the I-Team visited the farm in June, thousands of eggs from the first batch were springing to life.

See more of the Indiana facility raising bioengineered salmon

According to the company, Atlantic salmon is modified with DNA from Chinook salmon and a fish called an ocean pout. The result, according to AquaBounty, is a fish that can be eaten sooner because it grows faster compared to other farm-raised salmon.

The proprietary species, called AquAdvantage, reaches roughly 10 lbs. in 18 months.

AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf said the product requires 25% less feed to grow and will require fewer resources.

"Our fish was really designed for land based farming," she said.

Wulf said the fish is nearly identical to Atlantic salmon with the exception of one gene, and she said it is safe to eat, good tasting, and requires less feed and fewer resources. She also claimed it will help ease overfishing of wild salmon.

The development of the altered fish began in the 1990s in Canada and has been on the market there since 2017.

Because Canada does not require the labeling of genetically modified fish, most people may not know they are eating the altered product. That has caused controversy and claims from advocacy groups that the company would try to be secretive in the U.S.

Wulf disagreed and insisted her company is proud of its product.

"We are all about transparency. We want consumers to know where their food came from and how it was raised," she said.

The FDA regulates genetically modified animals as drugs and has determined the AquaBounty salmon is safe to eat.

CLICK HERE to see the FDA AquAdvantage salmon fact sheet

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of the labeling.

CLICK HERE for the USDA's BE Disclosure information page

Mandatory compliance for labeling in the U.S. doesn't start until 2022, although the fish could be for sale here by 2020.

Those disclosures do not have to be stamped on the packaging; they can be included in a code that must be scanned by a shopper's phone to find out if the product is bioengineered or contains bioengineered ingredients.

CLICK HERE to see the Center for Food Safety's website

Some advocacy groups remain opposed to the production and sale of genetically modified food and they worry the labeling requirements in the United States could be confusing.

Jaydee Hanson, the Policy Director for the Center for Food Safety, an industry watchdog group, told the I-Team, "We would like clear on the packaging labeling and on your restaurant menu. If the company is able to hide the fact that it is selling genetically engineered fish, it's a problem."

Wulf said AquaBounty plans to voluntarily put "bioengineered food" labeling on its packaging starting in 2020 and will work with food suppliers to ensure the origin of the fish is clear to the public.

The Center for Food Safety is asking U.S. retailers to pledge not to sell the fish. And, along with other organizations, it is suing the FDA, challenging the agency's authority to approve GMO animals for use as food.

CLICK HERE to read the lawsuit

"We have a lawsuit that says among others things the FDA doesn't have the legal authority in the first place to approve the fish," Hanson said.

In a court filing the FDA maintains its authority to approve the fish but the agency declined to comment on the litigation.

Even though the company plans to encourage food suppliers to be up front about the use the bioengineered salmon, the disclosure rule doesn't apply to restaurants or food service venues, which means you could order the salmon in a U.S. restaurant and not know it.

AquaBounty expects the salmon currently being raised in Indiana to be on the market later in 2020.