That removed a key hurdle for a Massachusetts-based company seeking to market the modified salmon, which critics derisively have dubbed “Frankenfish.”
But the move also reignited a long-running debate over whether a nation that already grows and consumes genetically modified plants such as corn and soybeans is prepared to make a similar leap when it comes to animals.
Food-safety activists, environmental groups and traditional salmon fishing industries are staunchly opposed to such a step and are part of a broader global struggle over the use of genetically modified foods.
Countries in the European Union have banned some genetically modified foods outright and instituted tight labeling requirements on foods that contain modified ingredients. Countries such as Russia, Japan and Peru also have instituted restrictions on genetically altered foods.
AquAdvantage, the fast-growing fish at the center of the controversy in the United States, is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and has been given a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The result is a fish that grows larger and faster than traditional salmon.
Under the company’s proposal, no modified salmon would actually be produced in America. The eggs would be produced at a facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada and shipped to another facility in Panama, where they would be harvested and processed. In its assessment, the FDA said the likelihood that the altered fish could escape containment and reproduce in the wild is “extremely remote.”
Friday’s assessment could pave the way for ultimate approval of the engineered fish. The FDA must first take comments from the public on its report for 60 days before finalizing it. After that, the agency will decide whether to give AquaBounty the green light to begin marketing its fish to Americans.
“We’re encouraged by this milestone, and we’re grateful that they’ve elected to continue a science-based process,” Ronald Stotish, president of AquaBounty Technologies, said in an interview. “We think this is progress.”
Friday’s determination echoes findings from two years ago, when the FDA held days of public hearings and convened panels of scientists, staff members and industry officials to consider potential impacts of the altered salmon.
Since then, the approval process for the fish has remained at a virtual standstill. But the public fight over it has churned on.
Some consumer and environmental conservation groups have claimed that the FDA has failed to fully scrutinize the product and its potential effects. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly those from the Northwest, have backed legislation that would ban the fish outright or require specific labeling about its origins.