A panel of scientific advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) met September 19-20 to evaluate findings from staff concluding that genetically engineered salmon from Aqua Bounty Technologies Inc. are safe to eat and pose little risk to the environment. The modified Atlantic salmon are known as AquAdvantage, and, if approved for sale, would be the first gene-altered animal marketed for human consumption.
AquAdvantage salmon are designed to grow to full sizes as much as twice as quickly as wild-type salmon by adding growth hormone genes from Chinook salmon and a genetic “on-off switch” from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout. The resulting salmon, all female, are sterile. According to FDA analysis, there is a “reasonable certainty” that eating these fish will not be harmful, and they see environmental harm as unlikely.
Many activists and consumer representatives are skeptical. The Center for Food Safety called the FDA’s tests insufficient to determine the long-term consequences of genetic engineering, and 78% of respondents to a Washington Post poll declared that they would not eat the AquAdvantage salmon because they were “too concerned about potential health and environmental risks.”
But Eric Hallerman, PhD, professor of Fisheries and Wildlife and head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, was impressed by the data Aqua Bounty provided to the FDA.
“This is the best characterized salmon I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen salmon worked up to this degree before,” he said. “In a functional sense, these transgenic filets are no different than conventional filets. It seems to me that from a food safety point of view, these salmon are safe. I would eat it and I would feed it to my kids.”
The risks, he said, lie more on the ecological side. “Were these animals to escape, do they pose genetic and ecological risks to wild populations and ecosystems?” Dr. Hallerman added.