Company says FDA is nearing decision on genetically engineered Atlantic salmon

By Les Blumenthal
Monday, August 2, 2010

It may not be the 500-pound "Frankenfish" some researchers were talking about 10 years ago, but a Massachusetts company says it is on the verge of receiving federal approval to market a quick-growing Atlantic salmon that's been genetically modified with help from a Pacific Chinook salmon.

Although genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans have been part of the American diet for several years, if the Food and Drug Administration approves the salmon, it will be the first transgenic animal headed for the dinner table.

"I would serve it to my kids," said Val Giddings, who worked as a geneticist at the Agriculture Department for a decade before becoming a private consultant.

The financial rewards could be huge.

Aquaculture is an $86 billion-a-year business -- nearly half of all fish consumed worldwide are farm-raised. As wild stocks dwindle and the world's population heads toward 9 billion, fish farmers will be looking for stock that will be market-ready more quickly.

But skeptics abound.

Fears persist about human health risks from genetically modified food, but concerns about bioengineered salmon also extend to the environment.

Farmed salmon are raised in net pens in coastal waters along Washington, British Columbia and Maine. Most commonly, the fish being raised are Atlantic salmon, and the fear is that they'll escape and compete with endangered native stocks. By some estimates, 400,000 to 1 million Atlantic salmon have escaped into the wild from the 75 or so net-pen operations in British Columbia.

A Purdue University study using a computer model -- and widely criticized by the biotechnology industry -- showed that if 60 transgenic fish bred in a population of 60,000 wild fish, the wild fish would be extinct in 40 generations.

"We've seen assurances in the past from industry and regulators that there won't be catastrophic consequences like the gulf oil spill," said George Kimbrell, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety. "We have a cultural amnesia about these things."

If the FDA approves the transgenic salmon, Kimbrell said, his group would consider litigation to stop it.

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