America’s biggest retailers and foodservice companies have already agreed not to sell GMO salmon

AquaBounty says its first bioengineered salmon will be harvested in March, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to buy.

For decades, Americans have been teased with the impending arrival of genetically engineered salmon. If a boycott campaign continues apace, they may have to wait even longer.

Earlier this month, a coalition of environmentalists and grassroots organizers announced they had successfully pressured Aramark, one of the country’s largest foodservice companies, into agreeing not to sell the salmon, should it become available in the United States. 

Although the legal status of the AquAdvantage salmon is in limbo, AquaBounty, the Massachusetts-based biotech company that developed it, told The Counter it expects to harvest the fish from an Indiana facility in March, and bring it to market shortly thereafter.

But it’s not clear who will buy it. Aramark joins 85 grocery chains, seafood companies, restaurants, and foodservice companies that have pledged not to sell the salmon since 2013, according to Friends of the Earth, a nonprofit environmental advocacy that led the pressure campaign against Aramark. 

All this opposition, despite the fact that the AquAdvantage salmon isn’t even ready for market.

“Avoiding potential impacts to wild salmon populations and Indigenous communities, whose livelihoods are deeply connected to and often dependent upon this vital resource, is core to our company’s commitment to making a positive impact on people and the planet,” reads a corporate policy memo from Aramark, which runs cafeterias in schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, and office buildings around the country.

Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said Aramark’s pledge emerged from private conversations with the company. “We let them know about the environmental risks, the health risks, and the concerns about the impacts to Indigenous communities,” Perls said, and that the salmon would go “against their sustainable sourcing policies.”

(Genetically modified foods are safe for human health, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Aramark did not respond to media inquiries.)

Other companies that pledged not to sell GM salmon include America’s largest supermarket chains, such as Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, and Ahold Delhaize, the parent company of Food Lion and Giant. Signatories also include the foodservice companies Sodexo and Compass Group, and restaurants like Red Lobster.

All this opposition, despite the fact that the AquAdvantage salmon isn’t even ready for market.

The bioengineered fish, genetically modified to grow twice as fast as conventionally bred salmon, was created in 1989, and approved as safe to eat by the FDA in 2015. Even though it’s currently sold in Canada, it’s yet to hit the market in the United States. That was expected to change in 2019, after FDA lifted a ban on its import.

AquaBounty GM salmon fillets. February 2021

AquaBounty’s bioengineered fish is genetically modified to grow twice as fast as conventionally bred salmon.

Courtesy of AquaBounty

The fish faces adamant opposition in some quarters. Since 2015, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has slowed down the “Frankenfish” through budget riders and labeling requirements, all of which have expired. In 2016, Friends of the Earth, along with a group of environmentalists, wild salmon fishers, and the Quinault Indian Nation, filed a lawsuit against the FDA to overturn the approval permanently. 

The groups earned a victory in November, when a federal judge ordered FDA to reconsider the permit. Even though AquaBounty’s only current facility is landlocked, the judge wrote that FDA may be tempted to approve fish pens in the open ocean in the future. U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria argued the agency had not adequately considered the impact that those pens could have on natural habitats, and particularly, whether a pen breach could lead to an escape that permanently endangers other species.

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Perls and others claim that escape is inevitable, whether in a land-locked facility or the ocean. (There is certainly cause for concern.) When it happens, they say the GM fish could outcompete the wild salmon for food. And although AquaBounty has engineered the salmon to be “effectively sterile,” Perls said the salmon can still spawn and interbreed.

“The GMO salmon is not 100 percent sterile, and containment is not 100 percent,” Perls said. “It’s not a question of if, but when.”

“The GMO salmon is not 100 percent sterile, and containment is not 100 percent. It’s not a question of if, but when.”

Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, said an escape off the coast of Washington could threaten the existence of the blueback salmon, a sockeye that’s long been a source of income and food for tribal nations. Due to historic logging and development, as well as warming waters, only a few thousand fish return to the Quinault River every spring, Sharp said. 

“We have no control over macro environmental challenges like a melting glacier, but of those public policy decisions that we do have control, there’s no margin for error, and we should do absolutely everything we can to limit any potential negative impact to the very last of our species,” Sharp said. “I’ve had thoughts: Am I going to be part of the last generation that’s ever going to see our prized Quinault blue-backed salmon return to the mighty Quinault, when they’ve been returning since time began?”

The lawsuit, and the consumer boycott, are part of an effort to “really nip this in the bud,” she said.

Some of the companies that have pledged not to sell GE salmon already sell foods made with genetically modified ingredients, like corn and soy derivatives. But Jane Kolodinsky, a University of Vermont economist who studies consumer perceptions of GMOs, said those retailers likely feel this product is different, for a few key reasons.

The strong feelings that some consumers have about genetic modification in plants are heightened in animals. A 2016 psychological study of 860 people showed that consumers were more “disgusted” by genetically modified tuna than a tomato. People who say they are opposed to using GMOs in plant production are “very opposed” to modifying animals, Kolodinsky said. 

Some of the companies that have pledged not to sell GE salmon already sell foods made with genetically modified ingredients, like corn and soy derivatives.

The idea that an escape would threaten Native American food sovereignty is also a powerful motivator.

“It’s really complicated, but there are lots of reasons to believe that supermarkets might use this to say, ‘look, we’re doing really well, we oppose this GMO salmon on many grounds, including Native American fish industry,’ which resonates with a majority of their consumers. And meanwhile, they can continue to sell everything else that’s GM and not have it gain attention,” Kolodinsky said.

AquaBounty has said the November court ruling does not impact its plans to bring the fish to market this year. In a written statement to The Counter, AquaBounty chief executive Sylvia Wulf said the company expects its first harvest of GE salmon in America to be conducted by the end of March. A company spokesperson said the fish would come to market within “a matter of days” after.

(A different spokesperson previously told The Counter that harvest would occur in late 2020.)

Wulf also claimed that the company’s production methods do not pose a threat to wild salmon populations. “Rather than condemn innovation that provides a creative answer to many problems we all face today, and innovation that protects the environment and consumers, each of us can play an important role in embracing technology and the benefits it can make to improve adverse conditions here at home and around the world,” Wulf wrote. “Claims that are made to the contrary, are misinformed and protectionist in nature.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.