U.S. regulators are weighing whether to approve genetically modified salmon for human consumption, and if they do, it might not be labeled any differently from conventional fish.
It is still unclear whether the Food and Drug Administration will approve the fish, which was created by a Massachusetts company and grows twice as fast as its conventional counterparts. If it is approved, the agency would then have to decide the label it will carry in grocery stores. According to FDA rules, the fish will not be labeled as genetically modified if the agency decides it has the same material makeup as conventional salmon.
FDA officials reviewed the science of the modified fish Monday and will hold a hearing Tuesday to discuss the labeling issue, which has many food safety and consumer groups concerned.
Agency officials have said they believe the makeup of wild Atlantic salmon is essentially the same as genetically engineered salmon, though they have not made a final decision on its approval. A federal advisory committee that convened Monday to discuss the science said more data and testing may be needed to be sure the fish is safe.
Several consumer groups plan to argue Tuesday for more detailed labeling, saying it is the public's right to know. Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, says his organization disagrees with the FDA that genetic engineering itself does not constitute a material difference in the two fish.
"It is essential to label a GE animal so that any unexpected effects will be recognized and consumer health protected," he said.
The Atlantic salmon engineered by the Massachusetts company, AquaBounty, has an added a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon that allows the fish to produce growth hormone all year long. The engineers were able to keep the hormone active by using another gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout that acts like an on switch for the hormone, which conventional salmon produces only some of the time.
In documents released ahead of the hearing, the FDA agreed with the company, saying there were no biologically relevant differences between the engineered salmon and conventional salmon, and there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will come from its consumption. FDA scientists said Monday there are very few differences between the modified and conventional fish.
Ron Stotish, CEO of AquaBounty, said at Monday's hearing that his company's fish product is safe and environmentally sustainable. But critics have two main concerns: The safety of the food to humans and the salmon's effect on the environment.
Because the altered fish has never been eaten before, they say, it could include dangerous allergens, especially because seafood is highly allergenic. They also worry that the fish will escape and intermingle with the wild salmon population, which is already endangered. They would grow fast and consume more food to the detriment of the conventional wild salmon, the critics fear.
The FDA tried to allay both of those concerns Monday, saying the fish shouldn't cause any allergies not already found in conventional salmon and there is little chance they could escape. But the advisory panel, which was formed to give input to the agency and did not hold a final vote, cast some doubts on whether there was enough evidence to back up those assertions.
Background on FDA meeting: http://tinyurl.com/ylp5ccv