Rick Moonen On GMO Salmon: "It's Just Kind Of Scary"

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first genetically engineered salmon for American consumers, providing restaurant chefs with yet another complicated menu decision. Serving science-altered fish puts many customers in a moral gray area, but not serving an available, abundant, cost-effective fish has existential ramifications for restaurateurs with tight bottom lines.

Las Vegas chef and sustainable-seafood advocate Rick Moonen has a complicated relationship with the latest trends in salmon production. Earlier in his restaurant career, he served farm-raised salmon from the Bay of Fundy, located on Atlantic Coast between Maine and Canada. But a trip to an aquaculture farm made Moonen a vocal opponent of farm-raised salmon for a decade. His view changed yet again in 2014, when he became a spokesman for True North, a farm-raised fish company with a troubled past. (Its parent company, Cooke Aquaculture, paid a record $500,000 fine in 2013 for using illegal pesticides.)

By the time we interviewed Moonen for the debut of our pilot Food Crimes episode on illegal seafood, the popular chef had been converted to the benefits of responsibly farmed salmon like that of True North, which is now served at Moonen's restaurants and sold through Fresh Direct. Moonen has faced his share of criticism for changing sides in the farm-raised versus wild fish debate. He has been confronted at food panels and branded a "salmon sellout" on Twitter.

We reached out to Moonen for his take on this latest wrinkle to the broader salmon-sourcing debate:

Have you ever tried genetically modified salmon?

No, I have not had any AquAdvantage fish at all. It's just so weird to me.

How likely would you be to serve your customers genetically engineered salmon?

Absolutely not. Not unless my customers were demanding it. I have no reason to support GMO food of any type, to be honest with you. But this being the first GMO-approved animal by our wonderful and illustrious government, it's just kind of scary.

What are your biggest concerns with genetically modified salmon?

It's an Atlantic salmon. But it's been combined with a Chinook salmon gene. That's because a Chinook salmon, or king salmon, are one of the best, fattiest, most delicious salmon. They took a sea pout, which is basically an eel, and introduced that into the whole genetic makeup. (Editor's note: AquaBounty Technologies, the company behind the FDA-approved AquAdvantage Salmon, did not respond to our request for comment.) Salmon has a natural cycle. According to the temperature of water and conditions, they don't eat the same as they would continuously through the year. When engineered in a certain manner, it becomes a voracious, aggressive and faster-growing animal. But it's not designed that way.

Why is this a problem?

I only see this putting a stress on its system, making it an unstable, not natural product. I'm not an alarmist, but I don't feel connected to a genetically engineered animal of any sort. And what scares me is that now there's an approved GMO animal, and that's just opening up the floodgates for other products. I've seen this happen with GMO growth before. Monsanto started with their Calgene tomato years ago. It seemed very innocent. Now 80 percent of what we are eating corn, soybeans are coming from GMO products. Monsanto is getting their way supported by the government. This is a long-term plan to control the food of the world. The AquAdvantage salmon has no place in any restaurant or on anyone's table.

Why shouldn't we expect that you may change your opinion about genetically modified salmon like you did about farm-raised salmon?

This is a different game totally. Farming fish is one issue and farming, which is necessary for food security in the future as we grow from 7 billion to 9 billion and beyond. And it did have a lot of issues. Aquaculture still does. But in certain areas, certain larger companies are taking a stand to make positive environmental strides in the aquacultural industry, True North being one of them. Because it was a new science, there was a learning curve. Certain people learn from the mistakes, make changes and get better. Some people continue to use chemicals and aren't as concerned.... But little by little, or on whatever schedule, certain companies made changes.

What are your biggest concerns?

I believe that our bodies are capable of changing with environmental changes, changing with certain evolutionary changes. But when you take these quantum leaps, our bodies can't handle that. So the food that we consume that has been GMO-manipulated, our bodies don't recognize it as food.

What are the chances you may change your view?

I don't see myself in my lifetime ever finding a way to support GMO foods on any level whatsoever. It's such a dark, dirty science supported by our government that it scares me as a chef and cuisinier, as a father, as a person living on this earth. There's nothing good about it whatsoever. It's not going to save anything. There's nothing more than greed as a motivating factor to support it. I would never be part of it. They couldn't drive a truck in with enough money for me to change my mind.