WASHINGTON, DC, April 25, 2013 – Friday April 26 is the last day for public comments on FDA’s Draft Environmental Assessment concerning AquAdvantage® salmon, a genetically engineered fish that will be the first genetically modified animal allowed into the U.S. food supply if it gains FDA approval.
AquAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon that has two added genes; an added gene from the Pacific salmon to make it grow faster, and an added gene from an eel that makes it grow throughout the year. GM salmon grow in half the time – 18 months instead of three years -but do not grow larger than natural salmon. Currently AquAdvantage eggs are created on Prince Edward Island and the fish are grown and farmed in Panama.
AquAdvantage creator, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty, has been working to obtain FDA approval to market its product for human consumption in the U.S. for 17 years. The salmon is currently in the final stages of the lengthy FDA required New Animal Drug Application (NADA).
After concluding in 2010 that AquAdvantage salmon is safe for human consumption, the fish cleared a last major obstacle in December of 2012 when FDA announced that it did not pose a threat to the U.S. environment in its Draft Environmental Assessment.
The initial public comments period for the Draft Environmental Assessment closed in late February 2013 with over 400,000 comments from the public. The comments period was extended for 60 days at the request a group of U.S. Senators, and the number of comments against AquAdvantafe has grown to over 1.5 million. Extended comments will close on Friday at 11:59 p.m. ET.
“Nearly 1.5 million people have commented to FDA from a broad spectrum of the public: consumers, scientists, salmon growers, doctors, students, ministers, chefs and Native American groups,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “FDA needs to put interests of the public ahead of those from the biotech industry, which appear to be GE salmon’s only proponents. FDA must put an end to this regulatory mess and acknowledge that the environmental risks and lingering food safety issues don’t justify approving this product.”
It is important to remember that the close of comments does not signal a final decision on whether FDA will accept AquaBounty’s application. FDA must first review comments and make a decision on the Environmental Assessment. After that, FDA will review the entire application before reaching a final decision on approval.
While FDA says that it is impossible to give a timeline of when, if approved, AquAdvantage salmon will be on the market, many predict that AquAdvantage will make its way into the American food supply by the end of 2013.
The argument over GM fish
Supporters of AquAdvantage and similar products argue that genetically modified animals will produce a low-priced, high-quality protein that is not a threat to the environment and is safe for human consumption.
However, critics like Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety (CFS) say that “GE salmon has no socially redeeming value; it’s bad for the consumer, bad for the salmon industry and bad for the environment.”
In 2010, six specimens were tested as part of FDA’s investigation of AquaBounty’s NADA application. Based on the results of these tests, many health professionals agreed with FDA’s assessment that the salmon is unlikely to cause more allergies or harmful effects than natural salmon.
Critics argue that testing, especially on the possible long-term health effects of consuming genetically engineered fish, has not been adequate. According to the Organic Consumers’ Association (OCA), “even with such limited testing, the results showed an increase in allergy-causing potential, […] AquAdvantage also contains elevated levels of the growth hormone, IGF-1, which is linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers.”
Opponents also argue that little is known about the long-term effects GM organisms have on the environment. GM fish grow twice as fast as natural salmon, eat five times as much, have less fear of natural predators, and can reproduce throughout the year. While FDA’s environmental assessment concludes that the salmon will not have a negative impact on environs surrounding the U.S., FDA did not require a similar study in the waters around Prince Edward Island, where the eggs are currently produced; or Panama, where the fish are being farmed.
FDA’s assessment concluded that it is unlikely the fish will escape their farms and pose a threat to natural species, including the endangered Atlantic wild salmon. This is because the fish “will be grown as sterile, all-female populations in land-based facilities with redundant biological and physical containment.” AquaBounty also claims that even if some individuals manage to escape, they will not survive the salty warm waters surrounding the Panamanian facility.
Critics note, however, that an escaped fish could impact local populations. Only 95% of the fish are actually sterile, and even though theoretical studies suggest the fish are unlikely to survive should they escape, there is no proof that they will not survive. Neither the FDA nor AquaBounty performed an environmental assessment in Panama to determine the impact if an escaped salmon does survive, so the effect of escaped fish is relatively unknown.
Labeling of GM foods
Once approved, which is likely, AquAdvantage salmon will not require special labeling identifying it as genetically engineered. Under current FDA regulations, GM foods are only required to be identified as such when they are “substantially different” from the natural version. The FDA stated that AquAdvantage salmon is not substantially different from its natural counterpart, and therefore will not require special labeling.
Without special labeling of GM salmon, consumers will lack information to allow them to choose whether to consume and financially support a completely new kind of food and food industry—one that we know very little about.
Additionally, FDA approval of AquAdvantage salmon is likely to set precedent for other GM foods. Firms that produce GM cows, chickens, and pigs are eagerly awaiting the results and are poised to petition for approval if AquAdvantage wins FDA authorization. If AquAdvantage ultimately does gain approval, it should be easier for these products to do so as well.
As FDA regulations stand, none of these genetically engineered foods would require special labeling identifying them as GE foods, and consumers will have no clear way of knowing whether they are eating food from a GM animal.
There are clear signs that at least a portion of the market has already started to reject GM salmon. Over 2,500 supermarkets around the country have committed to not refuse to carry GM seafood should it come on the market. Additionally, 260 chefs across the country have signed the letter by Chefs Collaborative objecting to the fish. These opponents are joined by several indigenous groups and hundreds of fisheries and fishermen’s organizations.
Writer Peter Murray calls the move toward genetically engineered food a “grand experiment.” Shouldn’t American consumers have the right to decide – and the information to make a choice about — whether they want to be part of that experiment?
Public Comments on the Draft Environmental Assessment close at 11:59 p.m. ET this Friday April 26. Everybody is allowed and encouraged to comment. To comment on the Draft Environmental Assessment click here.