FDA approves first genetically engineered animal

The first genetically altered animal, a salmon known as AquAdvantage, was approved yesterday by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after years of review and endless controversy. The salmon is engineered to grow twice as fast as its natural counterpart as it contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and has been given a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. This means the fish can grow large enough for consumption in about a year and a half, rather than the typical three years.

Produced by Massachusetts-based company, a recent article states that the FDA is requiring that the fish can only be raised in land-based contained tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama. Regardless, salmon fishermen and environmental activists have raised concerns about the havoc that could occur if any of the engineered salmon made it into ocean waters and mated with wild Atlantic salmon — a scenario they say could have unpredictable impacts and lead to the decimation of wild populations.

In addition, food-safety activists have long opposed the approval of the fish, which they refer to as “Frankenfish,” and have argued that its existence could open the door to a broad range of potentially unsafe genetically modified animal foods.

However, the FDA said that its decision to approve the fish was “based on sound science and a comprehensive review,” and that regulators are confident that the genetically altered fish is as safe to eat as a normal Atlantic salmon, with no discernible difference in its nutritional value. Officials also noted that the agency held meetings, combed through thousands of public comments, and conducted scientific and environmental assessments about the fish before finally approving it.

“All of that took time,” Laura Epstein, a senior policy analyst in the FDA’s center for veterinary medicine, said in the article. “As with many products that are the first of their kind, we’re very careful to be sure we’re getting everything right.”

Furthermore, the article states that the fish are all female and sterile, making it impossible for them to breed with other salmon, if they somehow were to escape their land-locked production facilities. The company also argues its fish could also reduce pressure on wild fish stocks and prevent the overfishing of Atlantic salmon.

Another issue certain to remain controversial as the genetically engineered salmon moves closer to U.S. dinner tables, is labeling.

The FDA said it can require additional labeling of genetically engineered foods only if “there is a material difference — such as a different nutritional profile” between the genetically engineered food and its natural counterpart. In the case of the AquaAdvantage salmon, the FDA found no such differences. Thus, the agency won’t require a special label.

However, the article states that buying wild caught salmon would be one way you could ensure you are not eating the genetically engineered variety. In addition, it could be years before the fish is even seen at grocery stores and will only amount to a tiny fraction of the massive market for salmon in the U.S.

“It’s not going to be on the shelf tomorrow,” Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest said. “This is not something you have to try hard to avoid. It’s actually going to be hard to find.”

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