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Genetically Engineered Salmon: Coming to a Plate Near You?

The genetically modified salmon called AquAdvantage was discussed on Monday in front of the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, which will help the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decide whether or not to approve the fish for commercial production. The meeting comes after an unusually short 14-day period of public comment on the “new animal drug.”

That’s right: the first potentially approved genetically engineered animal is being considered just like a pharmaceutical, instead of as a precedent with significant implications for the environment, other species, and human health, which would usually require a 60-90-day comment period to enable the public to go over the 255-pages of recently released technical information from the FDA.

Unlike clones, which are copies of an animal and which the FDA has already ruled safe to eat (and are also being sold without a label), genetically modified animals are those which have had their genetic code altered. The AquAdvantage salmon, for example, mixes a gene for producing a growth hormone from the Chinook salmon and a gene that encourages over-production of that hormone from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout.

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, criticized the decision a letter to the agency dated September 15th. “Since GE salmon is not in any way a lifesaving product such as certain pharmaceuticals or medical devices,” the group wrote, “we must question why the agency believes it is necessary to move forward so quickly, in a way that does not allow for the standard 60 to 90 days of public review.”

Consumers Union also criticized the make-up of the committee, which they suggested should have included “three fish ecologists, four food safety experts (including specialists in food allergies and in the effects of hormones on human health), and scientists from the consumer and environmental community.” Sourcewatch gives details on the committee members, while Jill Richardson provides bios for the temporary voting members on the committee, which includes a former employee of Monsanto and one non-scientist consumer representative.

After presentations by witnesses supporting the fish’s approval, consumer groups, scientists and others were given the chance to speak on the record. A re-occurring theme included discussion of the fact that AquaBounty Technologies, the company behind the petition, had control over the studies the FDA was now looking over instead of conducting studies based on the FDA’s established guidelines. Second, that the scope of the plans for the AquAdvantage salmon’s production would by necessity be bigger than the small tank facility in Panama that was presented in the documents. Many groups asked that the FDA request and Environmental Impact Statement  with consideration of the effects on larger-scale ecosystems, the fear being that the salmon could escape and compete with already-endangered wild salmon populations.

The FDA has already ruled that the genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon is safe to eat, and yet during the public comment period, many speakers focused on the shoddy science, small sample size, and the potential for allergic reactions. Another topic brought up during the hour of public comment was the lack of sufficient data on health concerns about modifying the fish to produce four times more of the growth hormone iGF-1, which has been tied to increased risks of cancer.

The committee had very few questions for the speakers during the public comment period, aside from taking interest in a poll by Food and Water Watch, which found that 78 percent of consumers do not approve of genetically engineered salmon. This coincides with the findings the Washington Post received when it asked its readers, “If genetically engineered salmon wins FDA approval, will you buy it?” to which 78 percent responded “No. I’m too concerned about potential health and environmental risks.”

Tomorrow’s VMAC meeting on genetically engineered salmon will deal specifically with whether or not the GE salmon should be labeled. (You can give public comment on this issue until November 22, 2010, details at the previous link and below.) Consumers Union conducted a nationwide poll [PDF] in 2008 which revealed that 95 percent of consumers want genetically modified food labeled.

But as Lyndsey Layton reported in the Washington Post on Sunday, if the AquAdvantage salmon is approved it will most likely not be labeled as genetically modified, and thus will remain indistinguishable from other salmon at the supermarket. “The FDA says it cannot require a label on the genetically modified food once it determines that the altered fish is not “materially” different from other salmon–something agency scientists have said is true,” Layton writes.

And the opposite is also true–wild salmon will have trouble using packaging that claims the product to be “GE-free,” because the agency feels these types of labels imply a quality difference.

But the exact opposite is true abroad. Layton writes:

In the European Union and Japan, it is nearly impossible to find genetically modified foods, largely because laws require labeling, said William K. Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University. “No one wants to carry products with such a label,” he said. “The food companies figure that consumers won’t buy it.”

If you feel empowered to speak out on this issue, Food and Water Watch suggests calling the White House. And you can still give your thoughts on the labeling question (and more, why not?) for AquAdvantage Salmon by identifying Docket No: FDA-2010 -N-0385 via http://www.regulations.gov or by writing:

Division of Dockets Management
Food and Drug Administration
5630 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061
Rockville, MD 20852

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