By Melanie Warner
An AquaBounty salmon compared to an Atlantic salmon of the same age. Photo courtesy of AquaBounty.Senators from Alaska and other salmon-producing states are battling to prevent the approval of genetically engineered salmon - what they like to call "frankenfish." But their efforts are likely to fall on deaf ears, since the FDA appears to be hellbent on providing U.S. consumers with their first GE animal food, and could announce approval within the next few months.
Alaska Senators Mark Begich, a Democrat, and Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, have crossed party lines to reintroduce a bill last week that would ban biotech salmon, developed by a Massachusetts-based company called AquaBounty Technologies. Begich is worried that AquaBounty's salmon would harm his state's important wild salmon fisheries, though it's not clear that he's right about that since wild salmon and farmed salmon - which would include the GE variety - are priced very differently and have two distinct markets.
Begich also calls AquaBounty's salmon, which is engineered to grow almost twice as fast as normal, "risky, unprecedented and unnecessary," and on these counts he might be right. As I've noted before, GE salmon won't provide any significant benefit to anybody except the people at AquaBounty. It's not going to be priced lower for shoppers, and, according to a Swedish study, the fish might be prone to collect more environmental toxins in their flesh than native species.
FDA's enthusiasm for biotech fish
Up until this point, approvals for biotech food have come under the purview of the USDA, which has an unblemished track record of approval for GE applications. The FDA, in its first serious review of a GE food, seems to be equally enthusiastic. The agency isn't rushing its approval - AquaBounty has been waiting for this since the mid-1990 - but there was evidence at a public hearing last September that the FDA is leaning heavily towards a 'Yes!' vote.
For one, despite having worked on GE salmon for years, the FDA gave the public just 14 days to plow through 255 pages of technical information, instead of a more common 60 or 90 day comment period. It also made the odd decision to regulate GE salmon as a "New Animal Drug" and have it evaluated by a special Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee. Most of these committee members aren't experts in fish or genetic engineering.
Murkowski and Begich have asked the FDA to shift the approval process to the its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which would be better equipped to evaluate the potential human health consequences.
Marine experts frozen out
As for the government scientists who actually are marine life experts, they've been largely frozen out of the process, according to Food & Water Watch. This group, which is vehemently opposed all GE food, has unearthed a trove of emails showing that officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have expressed concerns - which weren't brought up at the September hearings - that transgenic salmon would threaten and adversely affect wild Atlantic salmon, which are currently on the Endangered Species List.
In the emails, Fish and Wildlife officials complain that the FDA failed to consult with them, as required by law. Referring to the possibility that some of AquaBounty's sterilized female fish could actually be fertile and escape into the wild, a Fish and Wildlife scientist commented, "Maybe they [the FDA] should watch Jurassic Park."
Barring a huge public outcry over the genetic transformation of one of America's most heavily consumed seafood products - which, despite the general opposition people have towards GE food, doesn't seem to be happening - the FDA is likely open the door soon to a whole new generation of biotech foods.
Melanie Warner, a writer based in Boulder, CO, covered the food industry for The New York Times.
Image from AquaBounty