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Gene-Modified Salmon Nears Approval

AquaBounty Technologies added growth genes from two other fish to the Atlantic salmon, causing it to grow twice as fast
AquaBounty Technologies added growth genes from two other fish to the Atlantic salmon, causing it to grow twice as fast

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A genetically modified variety of salmon may soon become the first bio-engineered animal to reach dinner tables.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week is considering whether to approve the new product. The company that developed the salmon says it will mean more of this healthy fish on the market.

Rapid growth

But opponents say it has not been studied enough for its health and environmental safety.

Low in bad fat and high in healthy oils, salmon is the third most-popular seafood in the United States. The United States imported a billion dollars' worth of the orange-fleshed fish last year. And that demand is expected to grow worldwide.

"We expect as the world population increases, the requirement for high quality protein sources will increase," says Ronald Stotish, president of AquaBounty Technologies. "Fish are among the most efficient converters of feed to edible protein."  

AquaBounty added growth genes from two other fish to the Atlantic salmon. The modified fish reaches full size in half the time of its unmodified cousin. That's a big advantage for fish growers. And company tests show the fish is as safe to eat as regular salmon.

Scientific advisors to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have raised no objections.

Safety concerns

But about 50 protesters did recently in Washington - in front of the White House. Wenonah Hauter, of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, says the FDA hasn't studied the fish closely enough.

"Why are they using three studies with very small samples that the data is not available to the public, and one of the studies is 19 years old? There hasn't been a real process to look at what the food safety implications [are]."

Modified Atlantic Salmon in tanks
Modified Atlantic Salmon in tanks

In addition to food safety questions, Hauter says the modified salmon could escape from fish farms and wipe out native fish.

AquaBounty counters that nearly all of their fish are sterile and can't reproduce. And the fish will be raised in contained inland farms with little chance of escape.

Hauter says that may be the case in the U.S. but what about elsewhere.

"We know there are fish farming operations in China, in Asia, that are very interested in this, that have a poor record regarding regulation. And we're concerned that there will be escapees."

Uncertain future

FDA officials are meeting this month to consider whether to let AquaBounty's fish on the market. If it does, the new salmon faces an uncertain future with a public that is somewhat skeptical of genetically modified foods.

But the Biotechnology Industry Organization's David Edwards says that will change with time.

"It's just a new technology. And it's something that, as the public has the opportunity to learn about it and the public has the opportunity to taste it, I think it's something that I think they'll appreciate," says Edwards, who is not worried about safety. "If the FDA says it's safe, and the data certainly does indicate that, then I'm certainly willing to go out and eat the fish."

FDA is expected to reach a final decision later this fall. If approved, the AquaBounty salmon could be on the market within two years.

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