Swimming Upstream: Genetically modified Salmon’s Struggle for Approval

By Conan Milner
Epoch Times Staff
Created: June 21, 2011 Last Updated: June 21, 2011
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News Analysis

WILD AND NATURAL: Salmon leap in the river Etterick on November 2, 2010 in Selkirk, Scotland.   (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

WILD AND NATURAL: Salmon leap in the river Etterick on November 2, 2010 in Selkirk, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Genetically modified (GM) salmon has been considered for human consumption since 1995. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been poised for months to give the green light to the lab-created fish, last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a law preventing such a decision.

Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska) was largely responsible for the effort, arguing that the genetically altered fish would contaminate pure salmon stocks. The congressman made his point by amending a farm-spending bill with language that prevents the FDA from spending money on genetically modified (GM) fish.

Celebrated for its rich flavor and impressive essential fatty acid profile, salmon is a popular fish that supports an over $100 billion a year business worldwide. To keep pace with demand—and cash in with a patented product—Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies created a hormone-altered specimen that grows twice as fast as Mother Nature intended but only requires a fraction of the feed.

The biotechnology company calls their creation “AquAdvantage” but critics have dubbed it the “Frankenfish,” as the transgenic invention contains the genes of three different fish.

AquaBounty has designs for other GM fish, such as tilapia and trout, but most of the attention is focused on their salmon product. The biotech company says they can already produce eggs and have many interested buyers, but they need FDA approval to go forward.

Last year the FDA enlisted an advisory committee to determine the safety of GM salmon, but was unable to arrive at a decision. There are questions about the veracity of AguaBounty’s safety claims. Several committee members said AquaBounty submitted sloppy and misleading science for their modified fish. Despite this and considerable public outcry, FDA officials issued a preliminary ruling that GM salmon was safe for human consumption. The greater question is if it is safe for fish populations.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) revealed that the FDA withheld a Federal Biological Opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prohibiting the use of transgenic salmon in open-water net pens pursuant to the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This document, which CFS says the FDA intentionally concealed from its advisory committee, challenges claims by AquaBounty that the transgenic fish pose no threat to marine environments.

Compare the FDA’s easy acceptance of modified salmon to agencies in Europe where officials take a much more conservative approach to GM foods. In a Reuters article from earlier this year, European resistance to the lab-manufactured fish was made clear, and AquaBounty said that it had no plans to push its engineered salmon where it’s not wanted. However, the biotech firm suggested that once its fish got a foothold in U.S. markets, China would be its next target.

Sensing that an FDA approval of the GM fish was on the horizon despite substantial criticism and caution, Alaskan Sens. Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R) reintroduced legislation to ban the controversial GM salmon from their state. Similarly, California state Assemblyman Jared Huffman introduced a bill requiring that any GM salmon sold in his state feature clear and prominent labeling to distinguish it from regular salmon.

The FDA has deemed that no such label should be required as the modified fish has, in their view, “no biologically relevant difference" from conventionally farmed salmon.

The recently passed House law still needs a similar measure to pass in the Senate to actually prevent the FDA from approving the engineered fish. If it fails, and the FDA and AquaBounty get their way, the GM salmon will be the first genetically engineered animal product available for human consumption. The AquAdvantage (or Frankenfish, depending upon your perspective) could be available as early as next year.


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Daniel Craig, Contributor