By Emily Wasserman
Feb 6 2013
If approved, the salmon, dubbed “Frankenfish” by critics, would be the first genetically modified organism ruled legal for human consumption. Genetically engineered food products don’t have to be labeled as such so consumers wouldn’t be able to tell if they are purchasing the engineered variety of fish.
While the FDA indicated in 2010 that AquAdvantage Salmon was as safe for human consumption as farmed, conventionally raised salmon, “a final determination regarding safety of products from these fish has not yet been made,” according to FDA spokeswoman Therea Eisenman.
AquaBounty Technologies, based in Massachusetts, creates its “AquaAdvantage Salmon” by inserting a Pacific Chinook salmon transgene into an existing gene sequence. The substitution produces a fish that grows twice as fast as regular farm-raised salmon.
The FDA’s ruling produced sharp dissent from environmentalists and researchers who criticize the FDA’s conclusions in the released assessment.
“I really don’t think that it’s a fair, independent assessment of the playing field considering how little research has been done on these foods,” said Tim Schwab, researcher at Food & Water Watch. “They don’t have enough data on the GE fish, and this complaint has been widespread throughout the scientific community.”
The data only draws upon a small sampling size of fish, making it impossible to draw conclusions about the fish’s safety, Schwab said.
Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, agreed with Schwab that the sample size the FDA used for its study was too small to make conclusive statements about the fish’s impact on humans and the environment.
“For allergic reactions, the sample size they used was six fish, which isn’t even good enough for a high school science fair,” Hanson said.
As a result of the engineering, the fish are all female and sterile. The sterility acts as a safeguard against potential breeding. If AquAdvantage salmon were to escape into the wild, they would be incapable of mating and spreading the gene to other fish, according to the FDA’s assessment.
As a further precaution, the AquAdvantage Salmon eggs are grown in physically contained facilities in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and raised on a farm in Panama.
“Each farm has quite a few geophysical containment measures, so escaped fish would not be able to survive at either location,” said David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
However, Hanson said these farms are not as well contained as AquaBounty suggests.
“The company says, ‘oh, they won’t get out, we have careful containment,’” said Hanson. “Their facility is 120 feet from the Prince Edward Island sound.”
Schwab agreed with Hanson, and said containment is not foolproof protection against potentially disastrous environmental effects.
“Up to 5 percent of the fish may be fertile, and even if they are sterile, it doesn’t mean they won’t have an environmental impact,” Schwab said. “They’re still competing with native fish for food and resources.”
The risk of fish escaping increases with AquaBounty’s planned production process, said Eric Darier, senior campaigner at Greenpeace International. The shipment of salmon from Canada to Panama increases the chance that they may escape into the wild.
“By doing this, the US and Canada are de facto exporting the burden of risk of environmental release to a country that is less equipped to deal with these risks,” Darier said.
The escape of a genetically altered monster fish was the premise of director Mark A.Z. Dippé in a 2004 sci fi movie “Frankenfish.”
Biotechnology advocates emphasize the benefits, rather than the disadvantages, of the genetic engineering process. AquaAdvantage Salmon will grow faster and require less food, producing more fish for consumers, Edwards said.
“I think one of the positive benefits is that salmon will be available to more people, and since salmon is a healthy food, it will improve the diet of people,” he said.
However, the effect of genetically engineered salmon on human health has yet to be determined. The FDA regulates AquaAdvantage Salmon not as a food, but as a drug under the New Animal Drug provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, said Eisenman.
The process includes a characterization of the gene and how it will be used in the animal, a description of the animal’s health and characteristics, and an assessment of the environmental and food safety impacts of the genetically engineered animal.
Schwab said the lack of research about the safety of human consumption of genetically engineered fish could be attributed to politics, as scientists receive research money from key industry players.
“Science does not exist in a vacuum without political and economic constraints,” he said. “If you find a result that is not favorable to an industry partner, your research will probably not see the light of day.”
However, scientists disagree about the safety implications of genetically engineered fish.
“It’s better to eat a genetically engineered salmon than a triple cheeseburger,” said Art Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
While Caplan dismissed claims by groups opposed to genetically modified organisms that the fish may be unsafe for human consumption, he said more steps will have to occur before the fish is approved for commercial use.
“You need to license it, contain it, and have insurance against a leak,” Caplan said. “That would be my ideal.”
One topic that has not received as much attention in the debate is the ethics of creating a genetically engineered animal. Edwards said that personal morals should not affect the approval of AquaAdvantage Salmon.
“One of the considerations that people think about their food is what their personal ethics are,” Edwards said. “Taking your ethics and applying them to other people is not fair.”
Another consideration in the distribution of genetically engineered salmon is labeling. The issue remains contentious, as the FDA does not require the labeling of foods based solely on the production process.
“People have said to me: ‘Would you label the fish?’ I said sure, why not?” Caplan said. “I’m not worried about safety, but people have a right to know what they’re eating.”
Eisenman said the FDA has not reached a conclusion about the labeling of genetically engineered salmon.
“A decision has not yet been made regarding labeling for AquAdvantage Salmon, and at this point it is not possible to predict a timeline for when a decision will be made,” she said.
Until then, anti-GMO activists continue to question the efficacy of genetically engineered fish.
“Shouldn’t we have an idea that this has some benefit to consumers, salmon growers, society?” Schwab said. “It leaves an open question of the larger value of this application or product.”
AquaBounty did not respond to requests for comment.