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Safety of genetically engineered salmon debated

From Saundra Young, CNN
The salmon is genetically modified to grow to full-size in half the time it now takes for natural salmon.
The salmon is genetically modified to grow to full-size in half the time it now takes for natural salmon.
  • In genetically engineered food, DNA is taken from one organism and put into another
  • One group estimates 75 percent of processed foods have genetically altered ingredients
  • The FDA is studying a genetically engineered salmon

Washington (CNN) -- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has to decide if genetically engineered salmon is safe enough for human consumption and is spending three days to consider safety and labeling issues.

On Monday, the agency's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee discussed how AquAdvantage Salmon is raised. The salmon is genetically modified to grow to full-size in half the time it now takes for natural salmon. The fish would get a growth gene from the Pacific chinook salmon and genetic material from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish, that would allow it to grow in the summer and winter.

Aqua Bounty Technologies, the developer, had to file a new animal drug application for AquAdvantage salmon because the process alters the structure and/or function of the animal.

Wenonah Hauter, with the consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch, was passionate in her rejection of the salmon, and called on the FDA to move cautiously. "This is a dangerously limited set of data. Even the FDA acknowledges problems in the sample size, what's the rush?"

Video: Eat genetically-altered food?
Video: FDA debates salmon issue

With genetically engineered food, genetic material -- DNA -- is taken from one organism and put it into the genetic code of another.

What many consumers don't know is that for years genetically manufactured crops and food have been grown and eaten in the United States. Whether they're pose a risk has long been debated.

Tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, and corn have all been genetically altered, in fact about 45 percent of the corn and 85 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically engineered, according to the Center for Food Safety.

"It has been estimated that 70-75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves -- from soda to soup, crackers to condiments -- contain genetically engineered ingredients," the group says.

They are modified for a host of reasons -- to help resist pests, tolerate herbicides such as weed killers, resist disease such as fungi and viruses, tolerate cold and drought, and even to add vitamins and minerals to foods such as rice.

The FDA has already approved one application for a genetically altered goat that produces a human drug in its milk. The drug is for patients with clotting disorders, not for ordinary human consumption.

The FDA will not decide to approve this new salmon at this meeting. According to the FDA's Larisa Rudenko, this advisory committee meeting is just to lay out the advice and recommendations on safety. "We take a very careful look at the data and information that have been presented and try to identify any hazards," said Rudenko, a researcher with the FDA Animal Biotechnology Interdisciplinary Group.

Committee members in general considered the salmon to be safe, but still struggled with the small size of the studies and the amount of data presented. Unlike most meetings, there was no vote at the end of the day. But on Tuesday, the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition will take up the hotly debated issue of what the label should look like if the agency approves the application.