US authorities have begun to consider approval for the first
time the sale of genetically engineered salmon, a move that some say could open
the door to more transgenic animals on American dinner tables.
A US Food and Drug Administration panel has set a hearing
for September 19-20 to consider a proposal by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty
Technologies for production and sale of a new Atlantic salmon with a growth
hormone gene from the Chinook salmon that allows it to grow faster.
The company said the genetic change allows the fish to grow
to market size in half the time of conventional salmon but that in all other
respects, its AquAdvantage salmon "are identical to other Atlantic
The new strain of salmon can help meet rising demand for
fish and reduce pressure on wild fish stocks, the firm contends. It says it can
avoid the pollution, disease and other problems associated with saltwater fish
farms by raising the salmon at inland facilities.
"The benefit of this technology is that because the
fish grows more efficiently it can be grown faster and closer to population
centers," says Ron Stotish, chief executive of the group, which is
publicly traded in London.
Stotish, who said the firm hopes to sell its salmon eggs in
the US, Canada and elsewhere, argues that new technologies are needed for a
global population quickly depleting fish and other food supplies.
"I think this technology can be a tremendous aid to
assuring a safe and sustainable food supply," he told AFP.
But environmental and food safety groups are raising fierce
objections, saying this could not only endanger wild salmon but open the door
to other kinds of genetically modified animal foods that may pose health or
If approved, the salmon would be the first transgenic animal
allowed for US human consumption, although officials have approved a goat with
genetic modifications to produce an anti-clotting treatment.
Critics of the new salmon say approval could exacerbate the
problem of farmed fish escaping from tanks and breeding with wild counterparts,
with unpredictable results.
Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst at the Center for Food
Safety, a Washington-based watchdog group, said the company was basing its application
on the "fiction" that introducing genes into an animal is the same as
"Because the company is claiming this is a drug it has
to demonstrate this is safe in the animal, but it doesn't have to show it is
safe for people to eat," he told AFP.
The center was among a coalition of 31 groups urging the FDA
to reject the application, and Hanson said approval could open the door to a
variety of other kinds of genetically engineered animals ranging from tilapia
to pigs to cows.
AquaBounty has pledged safeguards that include only using
land-based facilities instead of ocean pens to prevent accidental release, and
breeding that leads to sterile females.
Stotish said the new salmon are "the most studied fish
in the world" and that regulators have considered a variety of scenarios.
"AquaBounty has taken unprecedented steps to assure
that the fish cannot interact with wild populations," he said. "Not
only are they all sterile females, as a condition of approval they will be
raised in land-based contained aquaculture systems -- making escape into the
wild an impossibility."
The FDA, in a preliminary assessment on the risks, said the
likelihood of escape into the wild is "extremely small." As a result,
it said the new salmon "are highly unlikely to cause any significant
effects on the environment."
Critics remain unconvinced of the merits of transgenic
salmon, derided by some as "Frankenfood."
"We all know there is a great appetite for salmon, but
the solution is not to ?farm? genetically engineered versions to put more on
our dinner tables; the solution is to work to bring our wild salmon populations
back," says Jonathan Rosenfield, president of the SalmonAID Foundation, a
coalition of commercial, tribal, and sports fishing interests.
If the FDA approves the request, it will then consider
whether to label the salmon as genetically modified -- a move which might lead
consumers to shun the fish.
But Hanson of the Center for Food Safety said that a special
label would be warranted.
"Our position is that given the data we've seen it
shouldn't be approved but if it is approved, it should be labeled," he
"If they don't label it, all other US farmed salmon is
going to be assumed to be genetically engineered, so it would damage the