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What You Should Know About the Company Pushing Genetically Engineered Salmon on Consumers

If approved AquAdvantage would be the first GE animal greenlighted for human consumption.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Ari LeVaux

 
 
 
 

AquaBounty Technologies, maker of genetically engineered salmon, is almost out of money. It's been more than two decades since the prototype of its AquAdvantage salmon was spliced into existence, and a decade since AquaBounty applied for FDA approval, but the fish remains on the sidelines of a salmon-hungry market.

The approval process is the first use of FDA's guidelines for GE animals, and if approved AquAdvantage would be the first GE animal greenlighted for human consumption. Further complicating matters, FDA chose to treat the salmon as a "New Animal Drug," rather than a food. The drug per se is the genetically engineered part of each piece of AquAdvantage DNA, and is found in every cell of the fish.

The AquAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon with genes inserted from a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout. The Chinook gene codes for growth hormone, and the pout gene keeps the Chinook gene locked in the "on" position. The extra growth hormone helps the AquAdvantage salmon reach market size twice as fast as non-GE salmon. 

The approval process hasn't moved significantly since September 2010, when FDA announced it would redo a previous environmental assessment on the fish. The assessment is problematic because the fish aren't produced in the U.S. Eggs fertilized on Prince Edward Island, Canada, are shipped to a containment facility in interior Panama.

Meanwhile, the regulation of AquAdvantage salmon as a new animal drug, rather than as food, is causing side effects of its own. On February 8, an alliance of consumer advocacy groups submitted a petition to FDA requesting that AquAdvantage salmon be regulated as a food.

FDA regulation as a food additive is called for, says the petition, in cases where "breeding or selection through genetic engineering reasonably expects to alter the substance's nutritive value or the concentration of constituents."
 
One such constituent is IGF-1, a hormone found in some animal products that's linked to cancer in high doses. The petitioners suspect AquAdvantage salmon of harboring elevated levels of IGF-1, and challenge AquaBounty's claim that IGF-1 levels in AquAdvantage salmon are no greater than in normal salmon. The petition says AquaBounty's own data suggest IGF-1 levels could be higher in the GE salmon.
 
Since the fish is being considered as a new animal drug, the scientific issues around AquAdvantage salmon are being reviewed by FDA's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC). The VMAC has been criticized for not containing experts in relevant fields, like allergenicity, or endocrinology. "Most of the people on VMAC are veterinarians that deal with large animals," said Michael Hansen, chief scientist of the Consumers Union, by phone.
 
Two weeks before the most recent VMAC meeting, in September 2010, FDA announced it considered AquAdvantage salmon to be safe. Huge public protests filled the unusually short 14-day comment period that followed. At the September VMAC meeting it was announced that a new environmental assessment would be done.
 
According to the transcript of the VMAC meeting, Dr. Gary Thorgaard of Washington State University said: "I would not feel alarmed about eating this kind of fish certainly. I am not worried about it." Nonetheless, Thorgaard, a fish geneticist, voiced concern about the environmental risk of an AquAdvantage salmon escaping into the wild, and endorsed the idea of a new EA.   

Earlier in the meeting Dr. Erik Silberhorn, who produced an environmental safety assessment on behalf of AquaBounty, was asked for information on native fish and amphibians in the area surrounding the grow-out facility in Panama.

"No I do not have information on native fish ..." Silberhorn replied. "The assessment of the local environment is still under the jurisdiction of the Panamanian government, and the same thing would occur in Canada."

 
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