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Genetically-modified salmon: Will the FDA give the go-ahead?

September 18, 2010 |  8:55 pm

GE fish reuters_b
For years, opponents have derided genetically engineered salmon as "Frankenfish" while the aquaculture industry has contended they would be harmless.  Now the conflict is coming to a head.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found in a preliminary report that the modified salmon "is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon" and unlikely to damage the environment.

On Monday, an FDA advisory committee will meet to decide whether to approve those preliminary findings.The vote is not binding on the agency, but it would likely influence a final decision.

The fish, a North Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies Inc., would be the country's first genetically engineered food animal. It grows to market size in half the time of other salmon and consumes 25 percent less feed in the process, according to the company, which is based in Waltham, Mass.

The patented "AquAdvantage" salmon is produced by taking a portion of the gene that protects an eel-like fish called an ocean pout against freezing, transplanting it into the growth gene of a Chinook salmon and transferring the blended genetic material into the fertilized eggs of a North Atlantic salmon.

The FDA's seeming readiness to approve the salmon has inflamed a coalition of consumer, environmental, animal welfare and fishing groups. They accuse the agency of basing its judgment on data compiled from small samples supplied by the company, rushing the public portion of the review and disclosing insufficient information about the fish.

The FDA does not have an approval process designed specifically for genetically engineered animals. It is evaluating the salmon under the process used for new veterinary drugs. That means that much of the data provided to FDA to demonstrate the safety of  the fish is considered a trade secret.

The controversy comes at a time when the booming fish farming industry is generally under attack for excessive use of antibiotics to fight disease in confinement areas. Farmed fish can also escape pens and breed with wild salmon, endangering pure stocks, fishing groups charge. The FDA contends cross-breeding is "unlikely."

Read more in Andrew Zajac's story on the genetically-modified salmon.

-- Margot Roosevelt

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