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Concerned coalition looks to Obama to block FDA approval of genetically modified salmon

by Chris Hinyub, published

As the Food and Drug Administration considers allowing the sale of genetically engineered (GE) salmon, a critical public is calling on the President to derail the approval process of the first GE food animal. Opponents of GE salmon argue the FDA's decision in this matter is motivated more by biotech stock values than a concern for public health.  At a press conference and rally on Thursday, the CEO of Ben & Jerry's joined representatives from the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth and Food & Water Watch outside of the White House to demand that President Obama direct the FDA to deny approval of what the agency is treating as an “animal drug.”  

According to a press release by the Center for Food Safety, “As of Thursday, a coalition of groups...had collected over 160,000 consumer comments to submit to the FDA and President Obama, urging them to reject the approval of genetically engineered salmon.” In all, over 300 consumer, health, animal welfare and environmental organizations, along with salmon and fishing groups, food companies, chefs and restaurants signed joint letters to the FDA opposing the introduction of GE salmon.   The FDA will hold a series of hearings this Sunday through Monday to determine whether or not to approve the controversial biotech fish created by the company AquaBounty.  

Opponents of GE salmon aren't just concerned with the human and environmental health risks they believe are associated with the novel technology. Activists are also taking issue with the FDA's approval process which limits public knowledge and participation, they say. Interestingly, the only research the FDA will be relying on to complete its review has been provided by the very same company seeking approval of its own product.  

     “It’s looking like the FDA will approve the salmon in the next few days unless consumers speak out to stop them,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “Unfortunately, the FDA has kept the public in the dark about the decision-making process. The clock is ticking, which is why we’re calling on the Obama Administration to halt the process before this science experiment ends up on our plates.”  

The FDA has provided consumers with a scant amount of information for review. The release of two reports provided by AquaBounty was timed just ten days prior to public hearings to determine whether or not the fish will be approved.  Dave Love, PhD, Project Director with Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future said:

     “The results of two non-peer-reviewed, confidential studies and one study nearly 20 years old are not adequate for the public to decide the allergenicity and toxicity of genetically engineered farmed salmon. The three major problems with these existing salmon foods safety studies are their small sample sizes, short durations and low quality.”

Love is adamant that further research is necessary.  On behalf of all concerned groups, the Center for Food Safety provided a list of grievances regarding the FDA's conspicuously trivial review process. Here is what they disclosed: 

     Despite AquaBounty’s claim to produce only sterile fish, up to 5 percent of its GE salmon eggs could be fertile (and could therefore breed with wild populations), prompting the FDA to label its claims “potentially misleading.”

     AquaBounty has claimed it has already received orders for 15 million eggs — 750 thousand of which could be fertile.

      The FDA has no rules requiring that AquaBounty, and the thousands of fish farmers who would receive their product, raise the GE fish on land. Millions of farmed salmon escape into the wild each year. Approximately 6 months ago, 10 thousand escaped from a UK farm due to one hole in a net.

      No long-term or independent studies have been conducted to assess the human health risks associated with eating transgenic fish. In assessing the impact of GE salmon on consumers and the environment, the FDA admitted that primary deference was given to studies submitted by AquaBounty Technologies – the company producing the salmon.

     The principal study the company conducted to test possible allergic reactions involved just six of the GE fish intended for human consumption.

     At this time, AquaBounty’s financial survival depends on FDA’s approval of GE salmon. The company has invested $50 million in the product, while posting zero sales and almost five million dollars in net losses in 2009. Its stock price plummeted to near zero in 2008 and only began to rise this summer after FDA announced its plan to approve the fish.  

Experts warn that the introduction of GE Salmon to world markets could have dire ecological implications as well as set a dangerous precedent for the commercialization of other GE animal foods. AquaBounty is planning GE trout and tilapia while GE pigs and cows have already been produced by other companies. 

     “The FDA is functioning more as a stock promoter for the biotech industry than a guardian of public health,” said Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “Approval of this fish cuts a gaping hole in public safety and seems intended to help the biotech industry raise capital for other GE animals.”  

National polls reveal that a majority of consumers would not eat genetically modified foods in general, while a Washington Post poll conducted earlier this month shows that nearly 80 percent of participants would not allow GE salmon in their diet.

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