Organic Consumers Association

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Why is the FDA About to Rubber-Stamp GE Salmon?

We're about to enter a brave new world in which transgenic, or genetically engineered (GE, as they are more commonly known), food animals may soon be appearing on our plates. An FDA special committee is meeting right now to determine whether a GE fish -- AquAdvantage salmon, genetically engineered by AquaBounty Technologies to reach mature size more quickly, thanks to genes from the Chinook salmon and from the eel-like ocean pout -- is safe for human consumption. The approval process for the GE salmon will set a precedent for all future GE animals; if the FDA does not set the bar high for solid science, it will mean a lack of scrutiny for other, perhaps less safe, GE animals in the future.

Unfortunately, the FDA appears poised to rubber-stamp the AquAdvantage salmon. After working with AquaBounty since the mid-1990's on the application for the GE salmon, the FDA has only just recently released 255 pages of technical information -- and then allowed a mere 14 days for the public to comment on it. And there is something decidedly fishy about the makeup of the committee chosen to weigh the scientific risk assessments. One might say that the scales are heavily weighted in favor of pro-biotech interests.

The FDA is regulating the GE salmon as a "New Animal Drug," in agency terminology, and it is thus being evaluated by a special Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC) meeting today and yesterday. Consumers Union, the nonprofit watchdog group and publisher of Consumer Reports, has written a letter to the FDA and formally submitted comments protesting aspects of this approval process, from the shortened time frame, committee makeup, and data rigor (or lack of it). In the latest twist, the GE salmon data was taken from a small sample of fish raised in a facility in Prince Edward Island, whereas AquaBounty actually plans to raise the fish in Panama; thus, approving the fish based on the current data actually represents a violation of the law.

So, given the significance of the GE salmon's approval process to the future of the U.S. food supply, why is the FDA all of a sudden in such a rush to approve the salmon that the public can only have 14 days to submit comments? A more standard public comment period would be 60 or 90 days. As Consumers Union points out, the GE salmon is not a life-saving medical technology that is urgently needed on the market. The only harm that could come from allowing the public 60 days to weigh in on the GE salmon is that AquaBounty will wait a few extra months to cash in. And perhaps independent scientists could raise difficult questions about the GE salmon's safety that would make it harder to ram through its approval.

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