GM salmon not yet ready for US dinner plates
The ruling should considerably delay the day when GM salmon might appear in stores or restaurants…Posted Oct 22, 2010
A controversial project aimed at bringing genetically modified (GM) fish to dinner tables across America has recently reached an FDA review panel charged with deciding whether to allow GM salmon to be sold for human consumption. As consumer advocates had hoped, the panel rejected the data presented by AquaBounty as inadequate to determine the potential for harm.
The GM salmon, marketed as “AquaAdvantage” salmon, are sterile females that grow twice as fast as natural Atlantic salmon (18 months versus three years) and will allegedly be raised only in onshore pens with no access to the sea.
To achieve this outcome, AquaBounty scientists inserted into Atlantic salmon a growth-hormone gene from king (Chinook) salmon and an “anti-freeze” gene from the eel-like ocean pout. They plan to raise the fish at onshore facilities in Panama.
The panel’s findings are not binding for the FDA, but the agency usually listens closely to its recommendations … so their ruling should considerably delay the day when GM salmon might appear in stores or restaurants.
Consumer advocates, environmentalists and others say there is not enough data to show that eating GM salmon, dubbed ‘Frankenfish’, does not cause side effects such as allergic reactions or that accidental escape will not harm other fish.
The FDA has already allowed modified animals as pets or to help produce biologic medicines, and genetically engineered vegetables like corn have been on the market for years. If approved, Aqua Bounty’s salmon would be the first genetically altered animal for consumption in the United States.
Overcoming advocates’ complaints and winning the panel’s support is also critical for Aqua Bounty, which has seen its shares more than triple this year ahead the FDA’s potential green light.
Critics, who include groups like Consumers Union, the Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch, say Aqua Bounty has not done sufficient studies to prove its fish is safe. They also criticize the FDA for allowing just 14 days for the public to review the data despite the fact that the company submitted its bid more than a decade ago.
Consumers Union “is particularly concerned that this salmon may pose an increased risk of severe, even life-threatening allergic reactions to sensitive individuals,” it said in a statement.
It added that fish are already a major allergen and that this salmon could make the problem worse.
The product is key for the small Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, which has no other approved products and is eyeing the genetic technology for use in other fish like tilapia and trout. Aqua Bounty Chief Executive Ronald Stotish has said the company’s AquaAdvantage salmon is the same in every measurable way to natural Atlantic salmon and that taste tests have shown no differences.
Stotish argues allowing the fish, which would be sold as eggs to inland fish farmers, could boost the nation’s meager domestic salmon farms. The United States imports more than $US1 billon a year of Atlantic salmon after industrialization knocked out most wild populations in the US Northeast.
Approval could also pave the way for other genetically altered food animals in the works, like pigs and cows.
One major area of concern is, if the salmon is approved, whether consumers will know when they are buying it. Current FDA rules only call for special labels for altered food when there is a “material difference” in the product’s end result.
The company and FDA staff say tests show the fish’s composition appears similar to normal fish.
Special package labeling to note AquaAdvantage salmon is altered, “just causes confusion for the consumers,” said David Edwards, head of animal biotechnology for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which includes Aqua Bounty as a member.
Proponents of GM salmon say it is just a matter of time before their products become an accepted part of the US diet, but critics say it may never happen, since all of the major salmon farming firms have rejected the idea of raising these GM fish. GM salmon, they say, would suffer from the same nutritional deficiencies as regular farmed salmon.
Are Current Rules Adequate to Regulate Genetic Engineering? (PDF) (Environmental Law Institute)