Eric Kilby/ FlickrGenetically engineered salmon may soon be on supermarket shelves near you.
The Food and Drug Administration is poised to approve the nation’s first genetically engineered animal designed to be eaten by people.
Next weekend the FDA will kick off a three-day meeting in which an agency-appointed panel of scientists and experts will discuss and listen to public opinion about food safety and environmental impacts of genetically engineered salmon.
The panel will also determine labeling requirements for the salmon, should it be approved.
The genetically engineered fish is an Atlantic salmon with a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a genetic on-switch from a fish known as the ocean pout. The company that created the fish is called AquaBounty Technologies, based in Waltham, Mass.
The added genes will allow the salmon to continue growing during the winter, a time when the fish usually do not grow. The result: a salmon that can grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of the usual three years.
Many environmental and food safety organizations are opposed to the approval.
They say the salmon company and the FDA have done nothing to alleviate their concerns about the safety of the salmon as food, nor have they properly considered the environmental consequences of farming genetically modified fish.
One paper, cited often by environmental groups opposed to AquaBounty’s salmon, showed that that a release of 60 genetically modified salmon into a wild population of 60,000 would lead to extinction of the wild population in less than 40 generations.
AquaBounty has said it will require producers to use their eggs only at inland facilities.
Charles Margulis, communications director for the Center for Environmental Health, an organization opposed to FDA approval, said the risks are too great and the system too unwieldy to feel reassured by these safeguards.
“If the FDA can’t track chicken eggs, you think they’re going to be able to track fish eggs?” he said.
He said the FDA has so far been vague on what kinds of controls, enforcement or guidelines they will set up if they approve the salmon.
Margulis and others are also concerned about the approval route the FDA is taking with genetically modified animals.
Instead of treating the genetically engineered salmon as a food, they are treating it as a veterinary drug.
Because of that, the application for approval must be kept confidential by the government.
So, how is the FDA deciding whether to approve the salmon or not?
“Basically, the FDA is saying if it looks like a salmon, sounds like a salmon and smells like a salmon, it must be a salmon,” Margulis said.
A look at some of the FDA documents on the salmon, however, may make you wonder if they shouldn’t be a bit more careful. The following is an excerpt of an FDA report on the salmon:
Although we have no reason to believe that AquaBounty Technology’s culling practices are inconsistent with the approach used for broodstock development in the commercial salmon industry, culling procedures at the Prince Edward Island facility are not likely representative of those used in commercial production and grow-out settings. Consequently, there is some uncertainty regarding the likelihood or incidence of abnormalities of AquAdvantage Salmon under commercial rearing conditions. To this end, the Durability Plan includes monitoring, data collection, and reporting of abnormalities observed under commercial production and grow-out conditions at the Panama facility where AquAdvantage Salmon will be reared.