Fast-growing salmon have cleared another hurdle in an upstream battle to be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption. After a long and possibly politically motivated delay, federal regulators have released preliminary documents declaring the fish safe to eat and environmentally harmless.
Since 1995, a company called AquaBounty, based in Maynard, Massachusetts, has been seeking approval from the US government to sell its AquAdvantage fish. These Pacific salmon have been modified with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon, which causes them to grow twice as fast as normal fish.
Rather than releasing the fish into the wild, the company plans to engineer its eggs in highly secure tanks in Canada, then ship them to Panama to mature. As a precaution, the fish are all female and contain three copies of each chromosome rather than two, rendering them sterile.
Controversy has engulfed the fish since their creation, but the concern is more about their potential ecological impacts than dangers to human health. Organisations such as the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which promotes sustainable fishing practices, worry that the transgenic salmon could outcompete wild salmon if they escape. “The risk of escapes and damage to wild ocean fisheries is simply too great to be left to chance,” director Matt Tinning said in a statement.
The organisation says it has not yet had time to review the newly released assessment, published on 27 December by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In two preliminary documents, it declares that AquaBounty’s safety measures are sufficient, that the fish would have no significant environmental impact and that they are safe for human consumption.
The timing of the release has sparked suspicion of political interference, as it came hours after a non-profit organisation called the Genetic Literacy Projectpublished FDA documents showing that the assessment had been complete since April and should have been released immediately. The organisation’s investigation suggests that the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), concerned over the issue’s sensitivity, had blocked the documents’ release until after the presidential election.
Asked about the allegations, the OSTP referred New Scientist to the FDA, whose spokesperson Shelly Burgess declined to comment. But she says that the agency is being particularly cautious as the salmon are the first transgenic animal to reach this point in the approval process.
Final approval of the salmon could still be some way off, however. The public now has 60 days to comment on the documents before the FDA will review them again. Burgess says it is impossible to predict how long the next review might take.