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Genetically engineered salmon: Ban it or label it?

September 21, 2010 |  1:02 pm

GE fish reuters_b
Consumer groups Tuesday called for genetically modified salmon to be strictly labeled if it is eventually authorized for consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The demands came in the second day of testimony before an independent panel of veterinary scientists that is advising the agency on whether to allow the sale of the salmon, which would be the first bioengineered fish or animal destined for human consumption.

Environmentalists and food activists oppose the petition by the salmon's developer, AquaBounty Technologies Inc., calling it "Frankenfish." "The FDA is the same agency that's in charge of overseeing the egg industry, and we see how well they've done that job," said Sarah Alexander, outreach director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group. "The scary thing is, the FDA doesn't do its own testing of genetically engineered animals; it relies on information provided by the company that wants approval."

The advisory panel debated Monday whether to endorse the safety of the company's patented "AquAdvantage" salmon, which is genetically engineered to grow faster and bigger than regular fish. But instead, it urged the agency to require more studies to demonstrate the fish's safety. It offered recommendations aimed at fleshing out information, including the possibility that the fish could trigger allergies or other health problems in some consumers.

One panelist, Greg Jaffe of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, predicted after the meeting that the FDA would eventually approve the salmon, "but I don't think the agency's going to go quickly on this."

Consumer's Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, opposed the approval of the salmon, saying it has not been shown to be safe, and argued it should be labeled in the event that it eventually reaches the market. "FDA should require labeling to insure that any unexpected or unintended effects of engineering this salmon ... come to FDA attention," said CU senior scientist Michael Hansen. "Drugs approved by FDA as safe have turned out to have unexpected health effects after they were widely used by consumers."

The implication: Without labels,  how would consumers, if they experience side effects, know that they had eaten GE salmon?

Current FDA rules call for labels for altered food only when there is a "material difference" in the final product. The agency asserts that genetic engineering itself does not constitute a "material difference." In a preliminary report this month, the FDA declared that modified salmon "is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon," a widely consumed farm fish.

Craig Altier, an associate professor at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the FDA advisory committee, also expressed concern that, if GE fish escape into the ocean, they could contaminate wild salmon stocks. "Containment of the fish is essential," he said, "as the release of this fast-growing animal could have devastating effects on native fish populations. We need to treat these fish as we would a potentially dangerous medicine or pharmaceutical, and apply all of the same security measures to its production and transport."

AquaBounty said it plans to raise the fish in inland contained facilities, not in ocean-based fish pens where farmed fish have been known to escape and mingle with wild stocks.

--- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: AquAdvantage salmon would be the first gene-altered animal sold for food. This handout photo, released Aug. 30, 2010, compares the size of its genetically engineered AquAdvantage Salmon (background) with an Atlantic salmon of the same age (foreground). Credit: Reuters/Barrett & McKay/AquaBounty Technologies

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