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FDA approves genetically modified fish, no label needed

You may soon be eating genetically modified fish without even knowing it.

The first genetically modified animal intended for the table has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the agency is not requiring the company who makes it to label the fish as genetically engineered.

Genetically modified salmon are in tanks at the AquaBounty farm in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Barcroft USA | Getty Images
Genetically modified salmon are in tanks at the AquaBounty farm in Waltham, Massachusetts.

The AquAdvantage salmon has been genetically modified to grow faster than conventional salmon. It was developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, which is mostly owned by genetic engineering company Intrexon. AquaBounty did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The animal is made by introducing a piece of recombinant DNA — a type of DNA that's formed by merging the genetic material of different organisms — into the salmon that makes it grow to market size much more quickly than nongenetically modified salmon will.

The FDA said in a statement issued Thursday that AquaBounty's fish had to meet several requirements to gain approval. Among them, the fish has to be safe to eat, the changing of its DNA can't be harmful to the fish, and that it has to actually grow faster, as the company is claiming.

The FDA has determined that the fish is as safe and nutritious as nongenetically modified fish, and will therefore not require the company or retailers to label the fish as genetically engineered.

"Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA can only require additional labeling of foods derived from GE sources if there is a material difference — such as a different nutritional profile — between the GE product and its non-GE counterpart," according to the announcement. "In the case of the AquAdvantage Salmon, the FDA did not find any such differences."

Both the approval of the fish, and the decision not to require any labeling, have some activists upset.

Representatives from Friends of the Earth, a group that has opposed the introduction of the genetically modified salmon, sent a statement to CNBC Thursday:

"Despite FDA's flawed and irresponsible approval of the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption, it's clear that there is no place in the U.S. market for genetically engineered salmon," said Lisa Archer, food and technology director at Friends of the Earth. "People don't want to eat it and grocery stores are refusing to sell it."

Some major retail chains have reportedly pledged not to stock the fish, according to Friends of the Earth.

Kroger, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods confirmed to CNBC that they've made such pledges. Safeway and Aldi reportedly have made similar commitments, though those companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Target told CNBC in an email that the retailer is "not currently planning to offer genetically engineered salmon."

Some critics, including Friends of the Earth, have expressed concern that the genetically modified fish grown in fish farms could make their way into wild populations.

However, the FDA announcement said "the approval of the AquAdvantage Salmon application would not have a significant environmental impact because of the multiple and redundant measures being taken to contain the fish and prevent their escape and establishment in the environment."

The company is so far permitted to raise the fish in only two facilities: one in Panama and one in Canada, according to the FDA announcement.