The US has given the green light for the production of genetically modified salmon, making it the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adjudged that the GM salmon, which is modified with genes from two other fish to make it grow faster, "is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious".
The altered salmon will be bred and raised in secure land-based facilities in Canada and Panama. This is to prevent the GM fish from escaping and establishing itself in the wild.
The FDA said retailers will not be required by law to label the fish as a GM product, but released guidelines for retailers who do want to label the salmon.
AquaBounty, the biotech company behind the fish, said the decision "is a game changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats".
"The US dietary guidelines advisory committee encourages Americans to eat a wide variety of seafood – including wild caught and farmed – as part of a healthy diet rich in healthy fatty acids," said Jack Bobo, senior vice president at Intrexon – the parent company behind AquaBounty.
"However, this must occur in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner. [The] FDA's approval of the AquAdvantage Salmon is an important step in this direction."
But critics say the fish could harm the environment and the wild salmon industry.
The GM salmon is infused with genetic material from two other fish - the Chinook salmon and ocean pout – which allows it to grow almost twice as fast as regular salmon, that too with less feed. The GM salmon is not expected to hit store shelves for another two years, but it is unclear if retailers will want to sell the salmon and if the public will want to buy it.
"While today's decision marks the first approval of a [GM] food animal, its impact on American consumers will be neglible," said Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director at Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"It will take months for AquaBounty to produce and export [GM] salmon for consumers to purchase. When they are at full capacity, the volume of imported [GM] will be merely a 'drop in the bucket' of salmon purchased on a yearly basis."
Lisa Archer, food and technology programme director at environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth criticised the FDA's decision as "flawed and irresponsible".
"There's no place on our dinner plates for genetically engineered fish," she was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency. "We will continue to work to ensure the market, from grocery retailers to restaurants, continues to listen to the majority of consumers that don't want to eat this poorly studied, unlabelled genetically engineered fish."
Professor Helen Sang of the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh told the BBC that the fish is the "first genetically engineered animal for food that's been approved anywhere in the world".
"There's been a feeling that many companies have been waiting to see if the US will approve GM salmon before going ahead themselves," she stated.