In a significant milestone for agricultural biotechnology, genetically modified salmon were approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday, the first time a genetically engineered animal has been approved for human consumption in the U.S.
"The FDA has approved AquaBounty Technologies' application for AquAdvantage Salmon, an Atlantic salmon that reaches market size more quickly than non-GE farm-raised Atlantic salmon," the FDA said in a statement, coming after five years of deliberations, reported NBC News.
FDA scientists concluded in 2010 that the salmon is as safe as, and no more allergic than, conventional salmon, concluding there is "reasonable certainty of no harm," according to The Washington Post.
The salmon has been modified with genes from two other edible fish that allow it to produce growth hormone year long and reach market weight in about half the time taken by conventional salmon. It also requires 25 percent less feed, according to the Post.
This 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," said AquaBounty Technologies Chief Executive Ronald Stotish.
The FDA approval came with the condition that the fish can only be raised in land-based, contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama, and they cannot be grown in the U.S. The agency determined that escape into the wild is highly unlikely.
Federal regulators said that companies can choose to voluntarily label the salmon as being genetically modified, but stressed that labelling is not mandatory since there are no material differences between engineered and normal salmon, according to the Associated Press.
AquaBounty, based in Massachusetts, says that their engineered salmon have the same flavor, texture, color and odor as conventional salmon. The company estimates that it will take several years before the fish hits the market, as facilities have not yet been developed to raise them.
The FDA decision quickly drew the ire of consumer safety groups, who mainly worry about the fish escaping into the environment, labelling and the general safety of genetically modified foods - particularly in terms of possible epigenetic mutations.
Consumers Union cited small sample sizes and "inadequate analysis" in studies and said the agency's determination that escape is not likely was built on "inadequate science and unfounded assumptions," according to the Post.
"This unfortunate, historic decision disregards the vast majority of consumers, many independent scientists, numerous members of Congress and salmon growers around the world, who have voiced strong opposition," Food & Water Watch, a Washington D.C.-based consumer rights group, said in a statement, according to Al Jazeera.
Several retailers have said that they will not carry the fish, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.