Hungry for Genetically Engineered Fish?

Posted on Aug 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

by Andrew Schneider

A major U.S. fish research company has tampered with the DNA of Atlantic salmon by adding a quick-growth gene that allows the fish to eat year-around and grow more quickly. And the Food and Drug Administration is about to allow these genetically engineered salmon to head to market, the company says.

But food safety activists insist that the FDA doesn’t have adequate tests and regulations to ensure the safety of modified seafood, and others question whether consumers are even ready for it.

“Far from being a benefit to consumers or the environment, this merely allows factory fish farms to double production rates,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety.

Nevertheless, AquaBounty Technologies in Waltham, Mass., near Boston, is already producing tiny red Atlantic salmon eggs that have been injected with a gene from Pacific Chinook salmon and another gene from the ocean pout. This genetic modification gives the engineered fish the ability to grow to market size in half the time of salmon that haven’t been messed with.

The fish would be the first transgenic animal application ever approved by the the FDA, according to the company, which has been developing the product and waiting for approval for 20 years.

AquaBounty says it has launched a “blue revolution,” which brings together biological sciences and molecular technology “to enable an aquaculture industry capable of large-scale, efficient and environmentally sustainable production of high quality seafood. Genetically altered trout and tilapia are the next to be offered up to the nation’s fishmongers.

However, the largest foreign breeders — like Canada, which is the No. 1 supplier of Atlantic salmon to the U.S. — say they see no reason to meddle with a good thing.

Current fish breeding practices are adequate to enable the production of a high-quality product, says the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance.

The alliance “does not support the commercial production of transgenic fish for food production until it has been declared safe by all the relevant regulatory bodies and until the market demands it,” Ruth Salmon, the group’s executive director, told AOL News.

Not So Fast

The science, as inventive as it is, may be ready to go, but there is a significant infestation of obstacles, beyond the FDA’s willingness to sign off on the gene modification, that must be overcome before these fast-growing fish start popping up on backyard grills.

During a happy hour conversation with AOL News at the annual International Food Technologies conference in Chicago last month, two food microbiologists, two research chefs and a market analyst talked about genetically modified animals.

Two thought the time had come to use this technology to produce cheaper, healthier and faster-to-market meat, poultry and fish. The other three predicted that they’d never see it in their lifetimes.

They knew of efforts by AquaBounty with the salmon, of two other labs that had jiggled DNA to get quick-growing jumbo shrimp and tilapia, and a third, somewhere on the New Hampshire or Maine coast, that had done something genetically to significantly shorten the seven years it takes lobsters to grow to a legal size.
Great advancements in fish science, they agree, and at least half of the group believed that the FDA was ready to approve engineered seafood. But absolutely no one thought the North American consumer and those in most of Europe were going to shell out money for genetically modified animals of any kind.

A food economics expert questioned by AOL News at the conference agreed.

“It would take a worldwide famine to get people with more than a grade school education to willingly eat any animal or fish concocted in a laboratory. They would have to be starving,” said the woman who worked on the United Nation’s hunger program.

Can FDA Regulate This New Science?

U.S. federal agencies attempt to regulate biotechnology using outdated statutes, written before biotech products ever came to market, said Kimbrell, the attorney for the Center for Food Safety.

“For example, FDA plans to regulate genetically engineered animals as ‘veterinary drugs,’ not living creatures, and its animal drug safety review was conceived before genetic engineering became a reality,” he said.

Kimbrell called the agency’s tests unacceptable and increasingly dysfunctional. He said the analytical methods used do not address the issues of potential allergenicity and toxicity, and are “grossly insufficient to determine the long-term, unforeseen consequences of eating and producing the (engineered) salmon.”

Not so, FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey told AOLNews Wednesday.

The agency has the regulations and authority to appropriately regulate these genetically engineered fish, she said.

She didn’t explain why it had to be done under the “existing New Animal Drug paradigm” but added, that FDA has issued guidance to the Industry on precisely how it would “rigorously and scientifically evaluate genetically engineered animals.”

Kimbrell said his organization wants to halt the approval, commercialization or release of any new genetically engineered crops until they have been thoroughly tested and found safe for human health and the environment and said his group would consider litigation to stop it.
AquaBounty officials have said they will raise their fish in land-based facilities where ocean escapes are impossible.

This doesn’t appease all.

“What about the masses of corporations that will no doubt race to produce GM fish in the crowded open ocean facilities they already utilize for fish production?” asks Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

Opposition to the approval of genetic engineering of fish is not new. Last year, of a coalition of 18 fisheries, consumer and food safety group shared their varied concerns on the use of the untried technology with the FDA.

Both Hauter and Kimbrell say those involved in food safety believe that if these genetically engineered fish get to market, they must be properly labeled so consumers will know what they’re really buying.

But AquaBounty says FDA cannot legally obligate the fish producer to label the product as anything other than Atlantic salmon. Anything else is voluntary.