US health regulators on Thursday cleared the way for a type of genetically engineered Atlantic salmon to be farmed for human consumption—the first such approval for an animal whose DNA has been scientifically modified.

Are you ready for this? After decades of back-and-forth with US health regulators, it’s finally here. Oh, it sounds good on the surface: fish that grow twice as fast, thereby conserving resources and feeding the masses. But like so many other things we have done to our food supply, we have no idea of the long-term consequences.

Researchers wondered what would happen if a fish or two escaped and mated with wild trout, so they cross-bred them and studied the results. (These were published in the July 2013 Proceedings of the Royal Society.) The hybrid fish grew even faster than their GM parents and ate up the available food faster than their non-GM siblings.

The study authors warned, “These results provide empirical evidence of the first steps towards introgression of foreign transgenes into the genomes of new species and contribute to the growing evidence that transgenic animals have complex and context-specific interactions with wild populations. We suggest that interspecific hybridization be explicitly considered when assessing the environmental consequences should transgenic animals escape to nature.”

The good news? The hybrid fish seem to be sterile. Concerns about the environmental effects  resulted in the company only marketing sterile female GM salmon.

Although it will be a while before it’s actually available commercially, it’s important to note that with current labelling laws, the fish does not have to be labelled as GM. This means that consumers may not know when they are eating it.

How to avoid it? Look for wild-caught salmon (and other fish).

More on this subject (from Reuters) below:

AquaBounty says its salmon can grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon, saving time and resources. The fish is essentially Atlantic salmon with a Pacific salmon gene for faster growth and a gene from the eel-like ocean pout that promotes year-round growth.

AquaBounty developed the salmon by altering its genes so that it would grow faster than farmed salmon, and expects it will take about two more years to reach consumers’ plates as it works out distribution. AquaBounty is majority owned by Intrexon Corp, whose shares were up 7.3 percent at $37.55 in afternoon trading.

Activist groups have expressed concerns that genetically modified foods may pose risks to the environment or public health. Several on Thursday said they would oppose the sale of engineered salmon to the public, while some retailers said they would not carry the fish on store shelves.

Kroger Co, the nation’s largest traditional grocery chain, has “no intention of sourcing or selling genetically engineered salmon,” spokesman Keith Dailey said. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market Inc also confirmed that they do not intend to carry the product.

Target Corp eliminated farm-raised salmon in favor of wild-caught salmon in 2010, which spokeswoman Molly Snyder said was the first step in a long-term commitment to improving the sustainability of our seafood assortment. “We are not currently planning to offer genetically engineered salmon,” Snyder said.

AquaBounty Chief Executive Ronald Stotish said the approval 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 approval for the fish, to be sold under the AquAdvantage brand, requires that the salmon be raised only in two designated land-based and contained hatcheries in Canada and Panama, and not in the United States. All of the fish will be female, and reproductively sterile, to prevent inadvertent breeding of the genetically modified fish with wild salmon, FDA officials said.

The agency on Thursday also issued draft guidelines on how food manufacturers could identify whether the salmon in their products are genetically modified. The guidelines state that such labeling would be voluntary.

Stotish said in an interview that AquaBounty will follow the FDA’s rule for labeling and currently “there would be no requirement for labeling.”

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