September 21, 2010 in Nation/World

FDA weighs engineered salmon

Approval would be a first in modified animal sales
Mary Clare Jalonick Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

This undated handout photo provided by AquaBounty Technologies shows two same-age salmon. The larger fish is genetically modified.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – A genetically engineered salmon that grows twice as fast as the conventional fish appears to be safe, an advisory committee told the Food and Drug Administration Monday. But they argued that more testing may be needed before it is served on the nation’s dinner tables.

If the FDA approves the sale of the salmon, it will be the first time the government allows such modified animals to be marketed for human consumption. The panel was convened by the agency to look at the science of the fish and make recommendations on its safety and environmental impact.

Ron Stotish, chief executive of the Massachusetts company that created the salmon, AquaBounty, said at Monday’s hearing that his company’s fish product is safe and environmentally sustainable.

FDA officials have largely agreed with him, saying that the salmon, which grows twice as fast as its conventional “sisters,” is as safe to eat as the traditional variety. But they have not yet decided whether to approve the request, saying there is no timeline for a decision.

Critics call the modified salmon a “frankenfish” that could cause allergies in humans and the eventual decimation of the wild salmon population. Representatives from consumer, environmental and food safety groups asked the agency to decline the company’s application to market the fish, saying it is untested.

Most members of the advisory committee agreed with the FDA that the company has presented some compelling evidence that the fish is safe. But members raised several concerns about the data, saying many of the sample sizes were too small and it is not certain how healthy the fish will be many years from now. Some said there wasn’t enough data to be certain the fish won’t cause food allergies.

It is still unclear whether the public will have an appetite for the fish if it is approved. Genetic engineering is already widely used for crops, but the government until now has not considered allowing the consumption of modified animals. Although the potential benefits – and profits – are huge, many people have qualms about manipulating the genetic code of other living creatures.

The hearing will continue today, when the agency will hear public comments on labeling the fish. It is possible that if the modified salmon is approved, consumers would not even know they were eating it. Current FDA regulations require modified foods to be labeled as such only if the food is substantially different from the conventional version.

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