Genetically Engineered Salmon Nears FDA Approval

PHOTO: A 1-year-old Atlantic salmon.
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Genetically engineered salmon could make its way onto plates in the new year, but your body won't notice anything fishy about the filet, experts say.

The Food and Drug Administration has determined genetically engineered salmon won't threaten the environment, clearing it of all but one final hurdle before it shows up on shelves throughout the nation -- and igniting a final 60-day debate on whether it poses health risks before it's officially approved.

Although it's been nicknamed "Frankenfish" by critics, health professionals say they aren't worried the lab-engineered salmon will cause more allergies or other harmful effects than any other breed of fish.

"The hard science part is that we have been creating [animals] using genes and natural selection for years to genetically predict what kinds of food animals, and recreational animals and such we have on our planet," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

He cited thoroughbred horses, show dogs and crops as examples of genetically engineered plants and animals dating back centuries.

"When Farmer Jones did it in his cornfield to try to get a better crop, it didn't bother people," Schaffner said. "When scientist Jones did the same thing in a much more sophisticated fashion in a lab, that does bother people."

A biotech company in Massachusetts called AquaBounty created the AquaAdvantage salmon, which is really an Atlantic salmon with an added Pacific salmon gene to make it grow faster and an added eel gene to make it grow year-round.

The end result is a fish that tastes like an Atlantic salmon but grows twice as fast, making it cheaper to produce and sell. Because the FDA likely won't require a label that says the salmon was genetically modified, consumers won't know the difference.

Click here to read about ABC News' exclusive look at the AquaBounty facility.

Schaffner thinks genetically engineered food is one way to help solve world hunger and, as long as the FDA thoroughly reviews it, there shouldn't be a problem.

But Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said he's been disappointed with FDA decisions on genetically modified food since 1992, when the FDA determined it is equivalent to any other food. He said there's not enough science to allow AquaAdvantage onto our dinner plates, but the biotech industry has had so much influence in Congress that it's been impossible to stop.

"Now this latest action by the FDA somehow determined that the salmon is safe -- safe for who?" he asked. "Safe for the investors?"

Kucinich has introduced legislation related to genetically modified food and labeling in every Congress since 1997, but it has never passed. He said Monsanto, the $2 billion company that produces genetically modified seed and pesticides, is partially to blame because it has so much money and influence.

AquaBounty, the biotech firm that makes AquaAdvantage, contributed less than $150,000 toward lobbying Congress over the last three years, according to campaign finance records available on OpenSecrets.org. In contrast, Monsanto spent more than $19 million lobbying over the same time frame.

Kucinich said the AquaAdvantage issue is a complex one, and worries about whether the genetically altered fish will hurt naturally occurring wild fish populations by overfeeding because they grow twice as fast as their naturally occurring relatives. However, the most recent FDA finding showed that this is not a concern because the fish are mostly sterile and not expected to escape their man-made farms.

The eggs will be made in a lab on Prince Edward Island, and the fish will be harvested in Panama, according to a May AquaBounty report published by the FDA last week. Although the study said the fish pose no environmental risk, it noted that up to 5 percent of the fish could be fertile even though they're engineered to be sterile females.

There's also some concern that the fish could cause more food allergies, bloggers and activists have said. But Steve Taylor, a food science and technology professor at the University of Nebraska, said it's unlikely.

People allergic to fish are allergic to a protein called parvalbumin, which is required for fish muscle function, Taylor said, adding that because being allergic to fish means being allergic to all fish, it's unlikely that the AquaAdvantage fish would be any different. People allergic to the fish protein will also to be allergic to AquaAdvantage even if there's more parvalbumin in it than in other breeds.

"The only thing you need to worry about with genetically modified food is that there is a novel protein that's not present in other forms of salmon," he said. "Does that unique protein have an allergenic potential? With the salmon, that's not a concern because that's what they looked at very carefully."

But Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit food activism group, said the testing has been largely conducted by AquaBounty, the company behind the genetically engineered fish, and that testing has only been reviewed by the FDA, which she said isn't good enough. She thinks the FDA should conduct its own studies because she is concerned that engineering across species will create an unforeseen mutation that could be harmful to consumers.

But Taylor said the producer should be held responsible for its own studies to keep FDA costs reasonable, and the FDA should review those studies.

"It's the FDA's responsibility to make sure they did a darn good job, and that's exactly what I think happened here," he said.

Still, Schaffner said the public will be afraid of what has been labeled the "Frankenfish" and opposed no matter how many studies and study reviews are conducted.

"There's definitely an emotional counterpart," Taylor said. "It's hard to stay focused on the safety assessment and the science and whether the stuff is good for us or not."

The Biotechnology Industry Organization was not available to comment on lobbying for genetically engineered food and safety.

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