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Sunday, October 17, 2010


FDA panel on genetically modified salmon leaves questions unanswered

The Food and Drug Administration has wrapped up three days of hearings and public comment on the effort by AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts company, to sell salmon genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as normal salmon. But the meetings ended without an FDA decision on whether the company can move ahead with sales. USA TODAY's Elizabeth Weise looks at how the decision will proceed from here:

Q: What happens next?

A: Nothing soon. Before issuing a decision on the application, FDA will publish an Environmental Assessment of the salmon, followed by a required 30-day comment period. The agency would then determine whether it would file a Finding of No Significant Impact or an Environmental Impact Statement, says spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. The agency would then use those findings to make a decision on whether or not to allow the sale of the salmon. The agency has said it has no set timeline for reaching a decision. Were the agency to decide to approve the sale of the salmon, it would take two years before the first crop was ready, company officials say.

Q. What's the animal in question?

A: It's called the AquAdvantage salmon. It's an Atlantic salmon with a growth hormone gene from a close cousin, the Chinook salmon, inserted into it. A second bit of molecular machinery to turn on the growth gene year-round, instead of only in the warmer months, comes from the ocean pout fish.

Q: Why would anyone do that?

A: The fish grow twice as fast as normal farmed salmon and require 10% less feed, so they'd be cheaper to produce.

Q: What are the issues?

A: There are really two: Are these fish safe to eat, and are they safe for the environment?

FDA staff, in a report released earlier this month, found the genetically engineered (or GE) salmon to be as safe to eat as normal salmon. But several members of the agency's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee felt that the tests for food safety could have included more data and encouraged the agency to request more from the company.

Q: What's the environmental issue?

A: Some scientists and environmental groups worry that if these fast-growing salmon escaped into the ocean, they might out-compete native salmon populations for both food and mates. As almost all wild Atlantic salmon are endangered, anything that could harm them is of concern.

Q: Could they escape?

A: The company has agreed to put in place multiple barriers to keep its GE fish from escaping. These include raising the eggs on Prince Edward Island in Canada where there's no fresh water for the baby salmon to live in, and raising the fish themselves inland in tanks in Panama, where nearby river water temperatures are too high for salmon to survive. This way, even if any of the eggs or fish were to escape, they wouldn't be in a place where they could live in the wild.

However, many environmental groups feel even these measures are not enough. According to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, each year millions of farmed salmon being grown in ocean pens escape into the wild, outcompeting native populations for resources and straining ecosystems. "We believe any approval of the salmon would represent a serious threat to the survival of native salmon populations already teetering on the brink of extinction," he says.

Q: Are those the only issues?

A: The elephant in the room is that this is just the first request for a GE salmon. "It's a foot in the door," says Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. AquaBounty has put in place multiple protections for a fish that will be raised entirely outside of the United States but sold here. How, he and others ask, will FDA find funds to do sufficient oversight in Canada and Panama? And what happens when the fish is sold elsewhere? Who will be responsible for ensuring that the same standards are maintained?

Q: If the salmon is ever sold here, will I know I'm eating it?

A: Unknown. FDA heard public comment on Tuesday over the labeling issue. Because the agency says the GE salmon is not substantially different from regular salmon, by FDA's own regulations AquaBounty wouldn't be required to label it as genetically engineered. All the consumer groups who commented feel that the public has the right to know whether they're buying GE salmon.

Though at least at first it would be easy to tell — the AquAdvantage would be the only salmon coming from Panama, and under Country Of Origin Labeling rules the salmon would have to be labeled Product of Panama.

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