Experts debating safety of "engineered" salmon

Are genetically engineered salmon safe to eat? Would they pose any threat to wild salmon or other fish if they somehow got out in open waters? And if they are put on the market for sale, should they be labeled so consumers can know where they came from?

Those are the questions being mulled and debated this week by a panel of scientists advising the Food and Drug Administration on whether to approve the nation's first genetically modified food animal.

The FDA has already made preliminary findings that engineered Atlantic salmon produced by AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts firm, are safe to eat and pose no significant risk to the environment.  But the agency's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee Monday deferred giving its blessing, instead urging government regulators to get more information first.

The panel's stance tracks with advice a local biotechnology expert says he gave it Monday. Yonathan Zohar, chairman of marine biotechnology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the technology holds promise but still needs more study.

"We keep overfishing and emptying our oceans," said Zohar, who was invited to brief the advisory group on the state of the world's fisheries.  "We need to stop and get more fish through aquaculture, but it needs to be done in an environmentally sustainable way."

Zohar has spent years developing techniques for raising food fish in tanks at the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor.  By manipulating the light, water temperature and other conditions in which they're kept, Zohar said his team has managed to produce market-sized sea bream in half the time it normally takes to raise them in open-water pens. 

AquaBounty is claiming it can raise genetically engineered fish to market size in half the time it takes to grow Atlantic salmon in conventional fish-farming pens - while using 25 percent less food.   Such technology stands to benefit the aquaculture industry by increasing its efficiency, Zohar said, but before it's given the green light, more information is needed, particularly to ensure the engineered fish won't wreak ecological havoc if they get loose. 

Zohar said he thought FDA was relying too much on assumptions that the engineered fish couldn't survive if they got into the wild because of where they'd be raised - in land-based tanks in Panama.  And he noted that the technique the company plans to use to sterilize its female fish isn't 100 percent effective.

"I'm all for genetically engineered fish making it into the industry," he said.  "But I think we need to be a little bit more rigorous in testing."

Zohar isn't the only local scientist with questions about whether FDA has enough information to make a good decision.

"There are things to be concerned about with regard to how transparent this process has been and the quality and quantity of data released by FDA," says Dave Love, of Johns Hopkins University's Center for a Livable Future. 

Love, who's director of a project examining the environmental public health impacts of aquaculture, says the agency has relied on three studies done by AquaBounty showing that engineered salmon are safe to eat and no more likely to cause allergic reactions in consumers than are traditionally farmed Atlantic salmon.  But while FDA has summarized the studies, they have not been released, he said, so their data and analyses could be reviewed by other scientists.

The question of whether engineered salmon should be labeled - which the panel is mulling today (9/21) also is prompting debate.

"If we're going to give consumers the choice of whether or not they want to purchase geneticaly engineered animals - or plants for that matter - labeling has to be a key part in letting consumers know what's out there on the market," Love said.

For more on the issue, go here.

(AquaBounty photo of engineered salmon in background, with Atlantic salmon in foreground; Yonathan Zohar, 2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Andre F. Chung)

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