Grocers Line Up—Early—Against Biotech Salmon. What About Wal-Mart?

Photograph by Jon Hicks/Corbis

An environmental group made waves this week with word that Kroger and Safeway, the second- and fourth-largest U.S. grocery chains, respectively, had agreed not to sell genetically engineered salmon. Don’t go looking for these futuristic fish at your local market: Genetically engineered salmon isn’t yet commercially available. Maybe that’s why the task of heralding the news was left to Friends of the Earth.

The list of retailers that won’t touch modified salmon now includes big names such as Target, H-E-B, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. But what about Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart alone accounts for 15 percent of fresh food sales in the U.S. It’s the country’s largest supermarket chain, with more than 3,400 stores, far in front of No. 2 Kroger at 2,400, according to a ranking by Progressive Grocer. Due to its vast scale, Wal-Mart can have an outsize impact on both consumer behavior and the market for any product, including genetically engineered salmon. (Kroger described the biotech salmon ban as a “merchandising decision,” and representatives for Safeway and Wal-Mart did not immediately comment.)

Shoppers currently can’t find genetically engineered salmon for sale because it hasn’t yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Over the past year, however, advocacy groups have been preemptively pressing retailers not to carry the fish, claiming the salmon would harm the environment and threaten other species if they escape from fish farms into open waters. Activists are now asking Costco to make a commitment, said Dana Perls, a policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “We will also be reaching out to Wal-Mart again and ask it to join the rest of the grocery store leaders,” she said in an e-mail.

The specific fish in question, AquAdvantage Salmon, was created by biotech company AquaBounty Technologies. The specimen is entirely female and sterile and can grow to market size in about half the time as typical salmon. The company has been trying to get it into the food supply since 1995. “An entire generation of people has grown up while we wait for approval,” says AquaBounty spokesman Dave Conley.

In preliminary findings released in 2012, the FDA suggested that biotech salmon raised under specific conditions would not have a significant impact on the U.S. environment—with emphasis on U.S. AquaBounty’s plan would have the salmon eggs produced on Canada’s Prince Edward Island and then grown at a land-based facility in Panama. The agency said in its findings (PDF) that the areas most likely to be affected are outside the U.S., and the National Environmental Policy Act “does not require an analysis of environmental effects in foreign sovereign countries, [and] effects on the local environments of Canada and Panama have not been considered and evaluated.” The probability of a salmon escape followed by reproduction in the wild “is extremely remote,” the FDA found.

Friends of the Earth sees the risks differently. “The FDA’s safety assessment was inadequate,” Perls said, “and research shows that GMO salmon could become invasive, putting species such as wild salmon at risk of extinction.”

AquaBounty’s Conley says big grocers have been intimidated by activist groups about a product that, if approved by the FDA, is still years away from getting to the supermarket and would only represent a tiny fraction of salmon sales. “It’s disappointing, really,” he says, “because we believe we have a good product, a safe product, and we don’t think people have anything to be afraid of.”

Even though biotech salmon isn’t for sale yet, some Kroger shoppers know enough about the issue to inquire about the company’s policy. “We’ve let customers know this when they’ve asked us over the past year,” says spokesman Keith Dailey. Wal-Mart, too, has been adjusting its inventory based on changing consumer concerns. Last week it notified suppliers they will have to reformulate products like household cleaners, soaps, and cosmetics to remove harmful chemicals. In the food section, meanwhile, stores also carry organic foods and hormone-free milk.

As large grocers line up against genetically engineered salmon, the market potential for AquaBounty’s product and others like it is shrinking even before the first retail sale. Biotech seafood startups will be watching Wal-Mart to see if futuristic fish still have a big future.

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