By Jon Swaine,
A new "super salmon" is expected to be approved for sale in the U.S. within the next few weeks, reigniting a heated debate over genetically-modified food.
The salmon would be the first GM animal ever approved for human consumption, and has been under development in Massachusetts for 18 years. It is expected to be cleared for sale soon by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and now American supermarkets are coming under increasing pressure to refuse to stock the fish.
The AquAdvantage salmon, which contains genes from an eel-like fish and from another breed of salmon, grows twice as fast as its natural alternative, allowing for increased and more robust supplies.
British firms are closely following its progress for indications on whether genetically-modified meat and fish can make it to the supermarket shelf - and whether consumers are prepared to eat it.
Last year the FDA concluded that the salmon, which has been labelled "Frankenfish" by campaigners, was "as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon" and did not threaten the environment.
Faced with its likely approval, opponents such as Friends of the Earth have shifted their attention to America's major retailers - demanding that they refuse to stock the new seafood.
"The approval of genetically engineered salmon will set a precedent that could open the floodgates for other genetically engineered animals," the campaign group said, in a statement urging supermarkets to sign a pledge for GM-free seafood.
The opponents claim the fish poses a risk of cancer to consumers and could destroy other breeds. They also point to polling suggesting that some 90 per cent of Americans do not want GM fish to go on sale.
While the salmon's manufacturer insists it is producing only sterile female fish, campaigners argue that as fish have been known to change sex under stress, there is a risk of contamination with wild salmon.
So far a dozen major retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Target, have promised to boycott the salmon, bred by the GM firm AquaBounty in Canada.
A statement by Kroger, the parent company of six popular chains of US supermarkets, saying that it had "no intention" to sell genetically engineered salmon was dismissed as "weak" by campaigners who directed 27,000 supporters to write to the company's management.
Urging them to "create a tsunami of messages", Friends of the Earth have now called on supporters to tweet at Kroger's brands or make complaints via telephone using a script provided by the group.
The campaign has been joined by the two U.S. senators for Alaska, where old-fashioned salmon fishing remains a crucial industry. "These so-called 'Frankenfish' pose a real risk to ocean ecosystems," said Senator Mark Begich. "Well-managed, wild salmon are one of our nation's richest resources." An approval and successful launch of AquAdvantage could persuade food companies in Britain to lobby for the right to apply for their own licences to begin producing GM fish or meat.
A string of chief scientists to the Government have endorsed in principle the prospect of using GM technology, especially with food shortages looming in the long-term. Meat from animals fed with GM crops is currently available in Britain. However, mass production remains effectively banned due to reluctance by European Union regulators to give the go-ahead to GM food production. GM food is explicitly banned in Scotland and Wales.
Earlier this year, Owen Paterson, Britain's Environment Secretary, called for the regulations to be loosened. "This isn't some new, spooky innovation brought in by strange profs," he said. "This is an absolutely established part of agricultural production."
However, there is little public backing for a change. A YouGov poll in June found that just 21 per cent of Britons said they supported the production of GM food.
Originally published: The Daily Telegraph.