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FDA Considers Approval Of Genetically Altered Salmon

August 31, 2010

U.S. health officials are expected to determine whether genetically engineered fish are safe to eat in a decision that could deliver the first altered animal food to consumers’ dinner plates.

The fish in question is manipulated to grow twice as fast as traditional Atlantic salmon, something its creator Aqua Bounty Technologies Inc. says could help boost the nation’s fish sector and reduce pressure on the environment.

However, consumer advocates and food safety experts say that splicing and dicing of fish genes may have the opposite effect.  They say that side effects from eating such fish are unknown, with little data to show it is safe.

“They’re basically putting the fish on permanent growth hormone so it grows faster … so they can sell bigger fish faster,” Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, told Reuters.

Altering the fish genes also raises questions about the industrialization of the nation’s food supply at a time when consumers are growing increasingly concerned and seeking more locally produced meals.

Aqua Bounty Technologies is seeking FDA approval to sell its salmon, called AquAdvantage, to fish farmers across the U.S.

The company’s engineered trout and tilapia could follow the salmon if it is given the green light by the FDA.  The U.S. already allows the sell of genetically modified plants.

The FDA will discuss the salmon on September 19 for three days.  Outside advisers will weigh available data and offer advice.

“This is an Atlantic salmon in every measurable way,” Aqua Bounty Chief Executive Ronald Stotish told Reuters. “When you look at the fish, it’s impossible to see the difference.”

He said that the company analyzed its salmon and found no differences that warrant any kind of special labeling.

According to Reuters, using technology developed by Canadian researchers, AquAdvantage grows to full size in less than 250 days, compared with about 400 days for a traditional Atlantic salmon.

Some groups say that little is known about the hazards, and they have criticized the FDA for not releasing the data.  The FDA said it hopes to make data public by Friday but that by law it does not have to release it until two days before the meeting.

Stotish said that Aqua Bounty has submitted all the FDA-required data, but has done no animals or human clinical trials.  However, it has conducted several tastes tests.

An FDA official said testing whole foods’ impact on animals would be impossible because of the massive amounts they would have to be fed.

“I’ve eaten the fish, and it tastes great,” said Stotish, whom the company promoted to the top slot in 2008 to try to push approval worldwide, except in Europe where it would face a certain cultural backlash.

Stotish has a long history serving in research and development and is a trained biochemist.

U.S. Atlantic salmon was abundant in the rivers of the country’s Northeast until the early 1800s.

If the salmon wins FDA approval, it is not clear how soon it would hit the U.S. consumer market.

According to Stotish, few fish farmers in the U.S. cultivate salmon.  He says he hopes farmers will convert their facilities to try the altered salmon.

September’s FDA meeting marks the second time the agency has publicly considered a genetically engineered animal.

The agency approved GTC Biotherapeutics Inc.’s modified goats last year, which are used to produce its anticlotting drug Atryn for patients with a rare inherited disorder.

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