While Congress and the president had U.S. citizens transfixed on the "fiscal cliff" and budget negotiations at the end of 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its draft environmental assessment of genetically engineered (GE) salmon, carrying this man-made animal one step closer to grocery market fish counters.
Environmentalists and food-safety advocates were not pleased. "This was a very narrow assessment, and it's the wrong framework for FDA to be making such crucial decisions," says Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that has opposed GE salmon through its GE-Fish.org website, ever since manufacturer AquaBounty first sought approval for the animal's introduction to the market.
The Fishy Risk the FDA Is Taking with Your Health
This man-made fish is an Atlantic salmon bred to contain genes of a variety of wild Pacific salmon called a Chinook salmon and from an ocean pout, a fish that resembles an eel. The combination of genes allows the fish to grow year-round, rather than only during spring and summer, as natural salmon do. And as a result, AquaBounty's salmon grows to 24 inches long, rather than 13, and clocks in at an average of 6.6 pounds, rather than 2.8.
Intended for human consumption, this fish isn't being approved as a food, and that's one of the biggest problems with the approval process, says O'Neil. Instead, it's being approved as a "new animal drug." "That means that a lot of the impacts won't go assessed," O'Neil says. The new-animal-drug application process wasn't designed to assess human health, he adds, so the FDA is using the company's own two-week-long safety trial to assume that the fish is safe for human consumption.
And, he adds, "most animal drugs can't reproduce in the wild when they escape," referring to the potential for the new salmon's eggs or the full-grown animals to either get washed or escape into nearby streams. That could pose disastrous problems for the already endangered wild Atlantic salmon population and for salmon farms. O'Neil says that there's a possibility that AquaBounty could wind up pursuing Monsanto-like patent protection cases against wild fishermen who catch an escaped wild salmon or against fish farmers whose fish breed with escaped GE salmon and thus become contaminated with its patented genes.
The Truth about Salmon
"That is a really important question that a lot of fisherman are really concerned about," O'Neil says. "Who's liable to clean up the mess if a fish escapes?"
That type of environmental havoc escaped the FDA's environmental assessment because, as the report states, since the fish won't be raised in the U.S., the U.S. environment (which is home to the last remaining wild Atlantic salmon stocks and a small number of salmon farmers) wasn't considered. The eggs will be raised in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and then shipped to Panama, where they'll grow into salmon.
For 90 days, ending February 25, 2013, the FDA will be accepting public comment on its draft environmental assessment, and you can provide your thoughts on regulations.gov; search for docket number FDA-2011-N-0899-0002.
Healthiest Salmon on the Planet Face Unprecedented Threats
When this salmon achieves final approval, and it's expected it will be as soon as the FDA's comment period is over, it will be sold unlabeled at fish counters. Alaska is the only state to have passed a law requiring labeling of this GE salmon, in an effort to protect the wild Alaskan salmon industry, but no other state, nor the FDA, is requiring labeling. Your best bet, given that, will be to continue buying only wild Alaskan salmon; federal law does require that wild fish and farmed fish be labeled as such, and GE salmon will qualify as farmed.
Photo Credit: AquaBounty