Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Other Big Grocers Make Big Decision on GMO Salmon

A group of leading markets make their call ahead of FDA.
(Photo: luoman/Getty)
Mar 20, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

A number of major grocery chains announced today they’re not waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to approve AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon. Instead? They’ve made a pledge to their customers that they will not carry the controversial fish in their stores—regardless of what the FDA decides. This marks the first organized pledge made by a group of grocers to not carry GMO seafood.

Trader Joe’s; its sister company, Aldi; Whole Foods; regional chains Marsh Supermarkets (with stores in Indiana and Ohio) and PCC Natural Markets in Washington state; and co-ops in Minnesota, New York, California, and Kansas have signed on with the “Campaign for Genetically Engineered (GE)- Free Seafood.” That’s over 2,000 individual stores, and more are likely to join in.

The genetically engineered salmon, developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, has been seeking FDA approval for years. The Atlantic salmon is genetically altered with a growth-hormone gene taken from a Chinook salmon, and a genetic “on-switch” from an ocean pout, which allows the salmon to continue making growth hormones during cold weather.

In December, the FDA released its draft environmental assessment concluding the GMO salmon would have “no significant impact” on the environment, and was as safe for consumers to eat as traditional farmed-raised salmon. Not everyone agrees.

“While the FDA thinks the fish are ready for primetime, the massive response of retailers show that those that would actually eat the fish remain unconvinced,” George Leonard, a scientist with Ocean Conservancy who testified before Congress on the GMO salmon, tells TakePart.

“GE fish only advances if there is a market to buy it. Today's announcement of a huge number of seafood retailers stating their refusal to buy the fish shows that FDA approval won’t be the last word on this important debate about what consumers want their future fish to be,” he says.

The Campaign for Genetically Engineered-Free Seafood is being led by a number of consumer and environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Consumers Union and more. They are in talks with grocery stores, seafood restaurants and chefs seeking pledges to carry only non-genetically modified seafood. To be clear, no genetically modified seafood is currently on the market, nor has any yet been approved for human consumption by the FDA, but many industry watchers feel it’s only a matter of time. And without labeling laws (a hot topic currently being debated in states across the U.S.), GMO salmon or other seafood will not require a label indicating it was genetically modified.

Ronald L. Stotish, chief executive of AquaBounty Technologies, told the New York Times he believes the fish is a safe, healthy product, but said stores had the right to join in on the pledge not to carry the salmon. The company has been on the verge of bankruptcy several times, but on Friday, shareholders kept it alive for another year by approving new shares.

According to the Center for Food Safety, “at least 35 other species of GE fish are currently being developed around the world, including trout, catfish, tilapia, striped bass, flounder, and many species of salmon.”