Image: Genetically engineered AquAdvantage Salmon with an Atlantic salmon
Reuters
A genetically engineered AquAdvantage Salmon (background) alongside an Atlantic salmon of the same age (foreground).
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updated 9/20/2010 7:21:01 PM ET 2010-09-20T23:21:01

Fish or Frankenfish?

A Massachusetts company wants to market a genetically engineered version of Atlantic salmon, and regulators are weighing the request. If approval is given, it would be the first time the government allowed such modified animals to join the foods that go onto the nation's dinner tables.

Ron Stotish, chief executive of AquaBounty, said at Monday's first of two days of hearings that his company's fish product is safe and environmentally sustainable.

Food and Drug Administration officials have largely agreed with him, saying that the salmon, which grows twice as fast as its conventional "sisters," is as safe to eat as the traditional variety. But they have not yet decided whether to approve the request.

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Critics call the modified salmon a "frankenfish" that could cause allergies in humans and the eventual decimation of the wild salmon population. An FDA advisory committee is reviewing the science of the genetically engineered fish this week and hearing such criticisms as the agency ponders approval.

Whether the public will have an appetite for it is another matter. Genetic engineering is already widely used for crops, but the government until now has not considered allowing the consumption of modified animals. Although the potential benefits — and profits — are huge, many people have qualms about manipulating the genetic code of other living creatures.

Story: Does 'super' salmon pass the sniff test?

Part of the hearing is focusing on labeling of the fish. It is possible that if the modified salmon is approved, consumers would not even know they were eating it. Current FDA regulations require modified foods to be labeled as such only if the food is substantially different from the conventional version, and the agency has said that the modified salmon is essentially the same as the Atlantic salmon.

If approved, the fish could be in grocery stores in two years, the company estimates.

Approval would open the door for a variety of other genetically engineered animals, including a pig that is being developed in Canada or cattle that are resistant to mad cow disease. Each would have to be individually approved by the FDA.

"For future applications out there the sky's the limit," said David Edwards of the Biotechnology Industry Association. "If you can imagine it, scientists can try to do it."

The FDA posted a number of documents relating to the hearing on its website.

AquaBounty says it would be the first in the world to market genetically engineered fish. The company submitted its first application for FDA approval in 1995, but the agency did not decide until two years ago to consider applications for genetically engineered animals — a move seen as a breakthrough by the biotechnology industry.

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Not clones
Genetically engineered — or GE — animals are not clones, which the FDA has already said are safe to eat. Clones are copies of an animal. With GE animals, the DNA has been altered to produce a desirable characteristic.

In the case of the salmon, AquaBounty has added a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon that allows the fish to produce their 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, according to the company. Conventional salmon produce the growth hormone only some of the time.

Vote: Would you eat genetically altered seafood?

In documents released ahead of the hearing, the FDA said there were no biologically relevant differences between the engineered salmon and conventional salmon, and there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from its consumption. FDA scientists speaking Monday said there are very few differences between the modified and conventional fish.

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.

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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 that there is little chance they could escape.

Critics speaking at the meeting said they were concerned about the unintended consequences of approval, arguing the FDA is relying on too little data.

Wenonah Hauter, director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said the FDA process is inadequate because it allows the company to keep some proprietary information private. Modified foods are regulated under the same process used for animal drugs.

"With all due respect, we don't believe a veterinary advisory committee is the appropriate place to discuss these food safety issues," Hauter told the panel.

European nations have been much more cautious in embracing engineered foods. Ruediger Rosenthal, a spokesman for Bund-Friends of the Earth Germany, said it is unlikely the modified fish would make it across the Atlantic for sale as many Europeans are very skeptical of genetically modified foods.

AquaBounty CEO Stotish countered his product has come under more scrutiny than most food.

"This is perhaps the most studied fish in history," he said. "Environmentally this is a very sustainable technology."

The company has several safeguards in place to quell concerns. The fish would be bred female and sterile, though a small percentage might be able to breed. They would be bred in confined pools where the potential for escape would be low.

In its environmental analysis of the fish released earlier this month, the FDA agreed with the company that there are enough safeguards in place.

Stotish says the fish would be bred in better conditions than many of the world's farmed salmon and could be located closer to towns and cities to help feed more people. The company has also said the increase in engineered salmon production could help relieve endangered wild salmon populations.

The company is also arguing that the fish do not need to be labeled as genetically engineered. Stotish said, "The label could even be misleading because it implies a difference that doesn't exist."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Critics unconvinced of modified salmon's safety

  1. Transcript of: Critics unconvinced of modified salmon's safety

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: whether to allow genetically engineered salmon to be sold in stores for human consumption, the first time such a move has been considered. And even though the industry and FDA scientists say it's safe, critics are not convinced. Our report on it tonight from NBC 's Tom Costello .

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: At a fish farm in Canada , scientists are turning these tiny Atlantic salmon eggs into a sort of super fish, injecting them with a growth hormone from Chinook salmon that causes them to grow twice as fast, meaning twice the harvest. The company, AquaBounty says the science can help relieve overfishing and put more salmon on dinner plates.

    Mr. RONALD STOTISH (AquaBounty CEO): In terms of the appearance, the taste, the texture and the biology, the salmon is the same.

    COSTELLO: But consumer health and environmental groups have dubbed the salmon "frankenfish." And Ben Jerry 's ice cream has launched a "Something's Fishy" campaign against the salmon and any genetically altered animals for consumption.

    Mr. JOSTEIN SOLHEIM Today , it's a fish we're talking about, but very soon it will be a genetically engineered pig, a chicken.

    COSTELLO: At a fish market in DC today, mixed reaction.

    Ms. MARINA TAMARINA: Just common sense. I think it's not supposed to be healthy.

    Mr. KEITH COMBS: Would I eat genetically enhanced food? We're already doing it in a lot of stuff we do now with processed foods.

    COSTELLO: But since no one's ever eaten genetically engineered fish before, the concern is of the potential hidden dangers, especially since so many people have such violent allergic reactions to fish. FDA researchers have already determined the salmon is safe to eat, but the chief scientist at Consumers Union , which publishes Consumer Reports , today told the FDA it's relying on sloppy science.

    Mr. MICHAEL HANSEN (Consumers Union): The basic point is is what little data there is there suggests that there could be an allergy problem, and allergies can be serious and life threatening.

    COSTELLO: If the full FDA gives its go ahead, the salmon could be in America 's grocery stores within two years. Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.