The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may grant approval for genetically engineered (GE) salmon as early as February of this year. If approved, the AquAdvantage® salmon would be the first GE animal approved for human consumption in the U.S.
Although FDA spokesmen have been dismissive of public concern about the fish, their own research shows evidence of potentially harmful changes. These include a higher instance of deformities and vulnerability to disease, presence of large amounts of a growth hormone that has been linked to cancer, and an increased risk of allergic reactions from consuming the salmon.
Deformities and Disease
The faster growth rate of the genetically engineered salmon (they grow at up to four times the normal rate) means a higher risk of deformities and susceptibility to disease.
The Institute of Science in Society found the physiological stresses of the accelerated growth trait made the fish more prone to skeletal deformities and viral infections. "Screamer disease" infects up to 70% of the GE fish, locking their jaws into a permanently open position.
Disrupting an animal's growth process and forcing it to mature faster that nature intended can cause all sorts of nasty problems. It's one of the many safety issues that weren't adequately researched, says Michael Hansen PhD, Senior Scientist at Consumer's Union.
[The FDA's] own data showed that these fish had higher focal inflammations, a form of infection. This was statistically significant but not explained. As a result, the fish may require more antibiotics and other drugs, like cancer-causing formaldehyde."
"Physically visible abnormalities make you wonder what's going on biochemically," says Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety.
Documents released by the Canadian government also show that a new strain of Infectious Salmon Anaemia, the deadly fish flu which has been devastating fish stocks around the world, contaminated the AquAdvantage® Canadian production site. This information was not included in the FDA’s report.
According to the FDA report, GE salmon has up to 40% more IGF-1, a hormone linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers in humans.
The National Institutes of Health states that an increased presence of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1) may trigger a "cascade of molecular events" that can ultimately lead to malignancy.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group Food & Water Watch, took issue with the lack of scientific information about potential transfer of the growth hormone from GE salmon to humans.
We question the safety of genetically engineered salmon because there is enhanced hormonal activity that allows the fish to grow so rapidly, and no research was done as to whether these hormones could be passed on to the consumer... It's poorly understood how it could affect people. We just don't know."
The American Cancer Society has also acknowledged the link between IGF-1 and cancer. Several of their studies have found that IGF-1 levels at the high end of the normal range may influence the development of certain tumors.
Research released to the FDA by AquaBounty Technologies, the company responsible for AquAdvantage® salmon, shows the genetically engineered fish have a 19-40% increased chance of causing an allergic reaction in humans who consume the fish.
In order to understand the allergy tests that were conducted, a bit of back information is necessary. The AquaBounty company first engineered a "diploid" version of the fish, meaning they have two sets of chromosomes and are fertile. Then, to make the final product, they add in new genetic material and end up with a salmon that has three sets of chromosomes - a "triploid" female that can't reproduce.
This isn't a perfect process. Only between 90 and 95% of the final fish are actually the sterile, triploid version.
The triploid salmon has an increased allergenic potential of around 19%, which isn't statistically significant according to AquaBounty. But the diploid fish has an increased allergenicity of 40%, which is statistically significant. This is especially worrying to consumer groups because the diploid fish is fertile and could breed with wild populations, causing widespread genetic contamination.
No Labeling Requirement
With the potential risks of consuming GE salmon, many consumers would avoid it altogether. However, the FDA has established no requirement for companies to label genetically engineered foods, and only Alaska has passed a law requiring companies to provide this information to consumers.
In a nationwide poll, 95% of respondents said they thought food from genetically engineered animals should be labeled, and 78% strongly agreed with this. A copy of the poll can be found at: http://www.greenerchoices.org/foodpoll2008/