Halloween may be over, but the Frankenfish—a genetically engineered salmon created by the company AquaBounty Technologies (ABT)—is still very real. Yesterday marked the end of the FDA’s public comment period, which followed the organization’s three-day hearings in late September on whether to approve the fish for consumption, and has inspired everyone from moms to senators to celebrity chefs to speak out on the issue. Technically, though the FDA insists they won’t be rubber-stamping the fish anytime soon, these comments were supposed to focus on whether GE (genetically engineered) salmon—if approved—should be labeled as genetically modified food. (Duh.) Isn’t it a little odd to zero in on package labeling before the salmon has even been deemed safe to eat? Turns out that’s just one of the many fishy things about the whole deal.
Massachusetts-based ABT has been working for the past fifteen years on their GE, or transgenic, fish, for which they’ve given the peppy name AquAdvantage. These are Atlantic salmon that have been injected with a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a genetic on-switch from the ocean pout, a distantly related fish; the resulting salmon grow year-round, which means they’re market-ready in as little time as sixteen months, compared to the three years it takes to raise normal salmon. While advocates claim that growing ABT salmon will help protect oceans from over-fishing and provide more people with an affordable source of fish, there’s good reason to fear the Frankenfish, which—if given the green light by the FDA—could start appearing in our supermarkets in just two years.
Critics, including the Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch, and members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), charge that the scientific data submitted by AquaBounty Technologies to the FDA in support of their GE salmon is biased, inconclusive, and inadequate. In fact, ABT tested only six transgenic fish to determine their allergen potential—even though finfish are among the country’s most common allergenic foods and the consequences of consuming GE food are still largely unknown. What’s more, the company performed food safety tests on salmon raised at a facility in Canada, despite the fact that they plan to grow their fish in Panama. Even an elementary-school science project would be criticized for such sloppiness. Though ABT’s findings—which have not been vetted by a third-party—are full of such holes, the FDA seems ready to accept the data at face value.
And then there’s the environmental risk. When farmed fish escape into the wild, they threaten to wipe out already diminished wild fish populations. While ABT maintains that their highly contained inland tanks and commitment to raising sterile, all-female salmon preclude this from happening, the truth is that we can’t afford any margin of error. Whether it’s a severe storm that destroys an ABT facility, an employee that deliberately flouts regulations, or the existence of a fertile GE salmon (ABT admits that up to 5% of their fish could be fertile) there’s still a small chance that the salmon will eventually mix with native fish populations. In emails obtained by Food & Water Watch through the Freedom of Information Act, senior officials at the FWS reveal this exact fear. On September 28th, 2010, Allan Brown, a FWS hatchery manager, sent an email to his colleagues predicting, “No matter what precautions you take, fish escape and once they do, there is no closing that door.”
The bad news just keeps coming. ABT states that their transgenic fish will have reduced disease resistance. Does this mean that they’ll be pumped with more antibiotics than are typically fed to farmed fish? Too many serious questions remain for the FDA to continue on the path for approval. Yet, aquaculture is a $1.09 billion-dollar industry, and ABT might be just powerful enough to cinch a go-ahead by the end of the year. This is an historic moment—approval of ABT salmon would mark the first GE animal authorized for human consumption and will set a precedent for future transgenic animal applications—and one that should not be rushed. No long-term or independent studies have been conducted to measure the effects of eating transgenic fish, and ABT is fighting to keep a GE label off their salmon if the fish are eventually legalized. (In the “Myth and Fact” section on the company’s website, the statement “these fish should be labeled” is designated as a myth.)
As consumers and parents, we have the right to reject GE salmon, and—at the very least—to be clued in on whether the fish we buy has been genetically altered. -Katherine Cancila
What do you think? Should the FDA ok transgenic salmon and, if so, should it be labeled as such?
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