Transparency, tracking sought in sale of GM salmon in Canada

A few weeks ago, Canada became the very first place in the world where genetically modified fish was being marketed – and not a lot of Canadians were even aware of it.

And therein lies the problem with the near-stealth way that about five tons of GM Atlantic salmon fillets from the U.S. aqua culture company AquaBounty ended up in still unknown Canadian stores.

“This is the world’s first sale of GM fish for human consumption and has occurred without GM product labelling for Canadian consumers,” according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a group that monitors issues relating to genetically engineered foods. The group said information about the sale of GM salmon in Canada was revealed in the company’s quarterly financial reports.

Could you have eaten genetically modified salmon without knowing it?

When reports of the presence of GM salmon in Canada surfaced over the August long weekend, several major supermarket chains were quick to say that they were not selling the product. Among those stores were Costco, Loblaws, Metro, Pete’s Fine Foods, and Sobeys.

Unlike in several other countries, the Canadian government does not require that GM foods sold in the country be labelled as such. MP Pierre Luc Dusseault of the New Democratic Party tabled a bill that would have amended the Food and Drugs Act, however, his private member’s bill calling for the labelling of GM foods was rejected by the House of Commons in May.

“This is the world’s first sale of GM fish for human consumption and has occurred without GM product labelling for Canadian consumers,” according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a group that monitors issues relating to genetically engineered foods. The group said information about the sale of GM salmon in Canada was revealed in the company’s quarterly financial reports.

AquaBounty has labeled its genetically modified salmon, AquAdvantage Salmon.

“No one except AquaBounty knows where the GM salmon are,” said Lucy Sharratt of CBAN. “The company did not disclose where the GM salmon fillets were sold or for what purpose, and we’re shocked to discover that they’ve entered the market at this time.”

Vigilance OGM Québec, the Montreal-based, not-for-profit GMO monitoring group, tweeted yesterday: “4.5 tons of GE salmon on the market without labelling, we are 1 guinea pigs in the world!” and later on Monday added, “Transgenic salmon is now sold in the country, without labelling.”

Media reports said that AquaBounty last Friday announced that it had sold approximately five tons of Salmon fillets in Canada after I received permission from health authorities. This gene enables the salmon to grow year-round instead of only during spring and summer.

AquAdvantage salmon are triploid. It has three sets of chromosomes whereas most animals have two sets.

To create the salmon, a growth hormone regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon, with a promoter from an ocean pout, was added to the Atlantic salmon’s 40,000 genes. This gene enables the salmon to grow year-round instead of only during spring and summer.

The ocean pout is an eel-like fish with antifreeze proteins in its blood to help it survive in near-freezing waters in eastern Canada and New England.

The aim of the genetic modification is to increase the speed of growth of the salmon. The AquAdvantage Salmon fish grows to market size in 16 to 18 months rather than three years.

The company went through three years of testing before the Health Ministry and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ruled in May that AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon is “as safe and nutritious as conventional salmon.”

The salmon are raised in Panama. However, AquaBounty said it plans to produce the fish in Prince Edward Island.

The company maintains that its genetically modified salmon is safe, nutritious and produced in a sustainable manner.

According to AquaBounty’s Web site, the company’s low impact fish farming method involves raising AquAdvantage salmon in land-based production systems away from the ocean.

“This eliminates the risk of escapes that could impact native fish populations AND the risk of pollutants or contaminants that could harm marine ecosystems,” the company said.

The AquAdvantage salmon are produced sterile to safeguard the wild fish population.

AquaBounty also claims its salmon grows to market size using 25 per cent less feed that traditional Atlantic salmon in the market.

Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay is holding several public consultations on the issue of GM foods across the country over the next two months.

The meetings will include stakeholders, Indigenous representatives, experts, and key policy makers, Up for discussion will be food affordability, accessibility, safety and conservation.

“Do I agree with GM? We have a regulatory system that’s science based. We promote it worldwide. I promote it worldwide,” said MacAulay in an interview with the CBC. “If the science based regulatory system indicates food is safe for Canadians, I agree that they’re safe for Canadians.”

However, groups like CBAN and Vigilance OGM clamouring for transparency, better ways of alerting consumers of GM foods in the market place and better federal government tracking of GM foods.

“We clearly need mandatory labelling of all GM foods,” said Thibault Rehn of the Quebec network Vigilance OGM.

There is no federal government tracking of GM products in the market and Members of Parliament voted down a Private Members Bill for mandatory GM food labelling in May, according to CBAN.

GM salmon is approved for human consumption in the U.S. and Canada, but there is an import ban in the US until labelling guidelines are published, Sharratt pointed out.

“When it comes to GM foods, Canadian consumers are shopping blind,” she said.

 

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