Consumer and environmental activists, facing likely defeat in their bid to block government approval of the first genetically engineered salmon, are trying a different tack to keep the fish off America's dinner plates: getting retailers not to sell it.
And they're making headway.
Some of the nation's most recognizable chains — including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Target — have agreed in recent months to steer clear of the fish. A spokeswoman for Safeway, the nation's second-largest grocery chain, said the chain doesn't have "any plans to carry GE salmon." Activists are pressing Kroger, the country's largest grocer, to make a similar commitment.
"The goal is to make sure there is not an available market for genetically engineered seafood," said Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth, an international network of environmental organizations helping to lead the effort to make the fish unwelcome. "People don't want it, and markets are going to follow what people want."
The Food and Drug Administration, which has been reviewing the genetically modified salmon for years, has strongly signaled it intends to approve the fish, making it the first genetically modified animal cleared for human consumption. The decision, which could come this fall, would be a milestone not only for the decades-long fish controversy but also for the heated debate over the development and marketing of other genetically modified foods.
Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies first applied for permission to sell its genetically altered salmon in 1995. Its AquAdvantage salmon consists of an Atlantic salmon containing a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The result: a fish that grows to market size in about half the time as a traditional salmon.
For years, opponents have argued there's not enough data to prove the salmon is safe to eat. They have also warned there could be devastating environmental consequences if the fish were to escape confinement and breed with wild salmon.
The FDA has concluded, however, that the genetically modified salmon does not pose a threat to the environment and is "as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon."
With the agency close to approving the fish, critics want to make it hard for consumers to find. Besides Friends of the Earth, groups such as the Center for Food Safety and Consumers Union are involved in the effort.
"Companies are going to follow what other companies do," said Perls, who added that organizers have also begun approaching some chefs and restaurants about taking the anti-AquAdvantage pledge. "No one wants to be seen as an outlier."
The campaign infuriates AquaBounty chief executive Ron Stotish, who says critics are engaging in "fear-mongering" and argues that his salmon could help reduce the over-fishing of wild salmon populations, bolster the world's food supply and use fewer resources.
"What we've been seeing for a long time is dishonesty, fabrication and malicious acts from these groups. … It's really frustrating," Stotish said in an interview. "What these groups are trying to do is prevent people from having the right to choose. Frankly, I think that's wrong."