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Ready to eat?

Science | As genetically modified fish gain FDA approval, critics are pushing for labels

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

Would you eat an Atlantic salmon with a Chinook salmon gene? Amid protests by fishermen and food safety groups, the FDA appears ready to permit the sale of a genetically modified (GM) animal as food in the United States for the first time. A Massachusetts company has been seeking permission to market its AquAdvantage Salmon eggs for over a decade, but the FDA had been wrangling about how to regulate such organisms. Congress has never passed a law to deal with transgenic animals or crops.

The AquAdvantage Salmon (AAS) is an Atlantic salmon that can grow to market size in about 18 months-twice as fast as its wild counterpart. Its developers inserted a gene sequence from a Chinook (with help from the DNA of a third fish species) that enables AAS to produce growth hormone in cold weather, when it otherwise wouldn't. Presumably, the species would help land-based fish farmers meet Americans' appetite for salmon without further burdening natural fisheries.

But some wonder whether GM species are healthy: Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, criticized the FDA's safety review of AAS as "sloppy science" with "woefully inadequate analysis." It has asked the agency to require mandatory labeling of the fish, so consumers can decide for themselves whether to indulge.

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Fishing groups expressed opposition to FDA approval as well, along with several lawmakers from Alaska, the state that produces over 90 percent of U.S. wild salmon to the tune of nearly $400 million a year. Beyond the financial impact a fast-growing, farm-raised fish could have on their industry, fishermen worry that if AAS isn't labeled in supermarkets and restaurants, consumers wary of transgenic food might stop eating salmon altogether. Although the FDA is seeking public input on whether to label, so far it considers the salmon safe and seems inclined to make labeling voluntary.

The agency has taken a sim­ilar approach with growth hormone-produced milk. The FDA gave dairy farmers permission to inject GM growth hormone into cows to increase milk production in 1993, arguing the resulting milk was safe and not significantly different from other milk. But on Sept. 30 the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Ohio ban on labels advertising hormone-free milk, determining that "a compositional difference does exist" between the two kinds of milk, including a nutritional difference. The decision seems to challenge the FDA's argument against GM food labeling, since it depends on finding no significant difference between the foods and their non-GM counterparts.

If you're worried about eating GM foods, you should know you've almost certainly already had them: Eighty-six percent of U.S. corn this year was planted with GM varieties, most of them engineered to withstand herbicides and pests. The use of the crops has risen sharply since they were first introduced in 1996, making the United States by far the world leader in GM crop production. The next few years may tell whether modified animals become equally common.

Next up? Enviropig, a Yorkshire pig with a mouse protein. Its waste would be an ideal manure choice since it contains up to 70 percent less phosphorus, a nutrient in farm runoff that is blamed for lethal, low-oxygen zones in fish habitats. Enviropig is awaiting FDA approval for human food consumption.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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