Engineered Fish Moves a Step Closer to Approval

By ANDREW POLLACK  Published: December 21, 2012. New York Times

Government regulators moved a big step closer on Friday to allowing the first genetically engineered animal — a fast-growing salmon — to enter the nation’s food supply.

The Food and Drug Administrationsaid it had concluded that the salmon would have “no significant impact” on the environment. The agency also said the salmon was “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.” While the agency’s draft environmental assessment will be open to public comment for 60 days, it seems likely that the salmon will be approved, though that could still be months away.

The environmental assessment is dated May 4. It is unclear why it took until now for it to be released, but supporters of the salmon say they believe it is because the Obama administration was afraid of an unfavorable consumer reaction before the election in November.

Environmental and consumer groups quickly criticized the federal agency’s conclusions.

“The G.E. salmon has no socially redeeming value,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington advocacy group opposed to farm biotechnology, said in a statement. “It’s bad for the consumer, bad for the salmon industry and bad for the environment. F.D.A.’s decision is premature and misguided.”

But the decision was long in coming. AquaBounty Technologies, the company that developed the salmon, has been trying to win approval for more than a decade.

“We’re encouraged by this,” Ronald Stotish, the chief executive of AquaBounty, said on Friday. However, he added, “We’re not so foolish as to be wildly enthusiastic” that Friday’s action will definitely lead to approval. Among other things, some members of Congress have tried to block the agency from approving the fish.

The AquAdvantage salmon, as it is called, is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout, an eel-like creature. The switch keeps the gene on so that the salmon produces growth hormone year round, rather than only during warm weather. The fish reach market weight in about 18 months instead of three years.

The F.D.A. tentatively concluded in September 2010 that the salmon would be safe to eat and for the environment. A committee of outside advisers, while finding some shortcomings in the analysis, did not contradict those conclusions in general.

The agency then embarked on a more detailed environmental analysis that has now come to the same conclusions.

The main concern addressed was whether the genetically engineered salmon could escape and establish themselves in the wild, with detrimental environmental consequences. The larger salmon, for instance, could conceivably outcompete wild Atlantic salmon for food or mates.

The agency said the chance this would happen was “extremely remote.” It said the salmon would be raised in inland tanks with multiple barriers to escape. Even if some fish did escape, the nearby bodies of water would be too hot or salty for their survival. And reproduction would be unlikely because the fish would be sterilized, though the sterilization technique is not foolproof.

The agency also said that approval of the salmon would have no effect on endangered species, including wild Atlantic salmon. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service did not disagree.

AquaBounty produces its eggs at a facility in Prince Edward Island, Canada. The eggs are shipped to the highlands of Panama, where the fish are grown to market weight.

The federal agency said that other facilities for growing the salmon would require separate approvals. It also noted that it did not assess how the salmon would affect the environment in Panama and Canada, only in the United States.

Opponents said that the agency should do a more complete environmental impact statement. They also said that not enough samples were studied to conclude that the fish would be safe to eat.

Scientists and companies working on animal biotechnology had complained that the failure to approve the salmon was discouraging investment in the industry.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 22, 2012, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Engineered Fish Moves Step Closer To Approval.

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