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Americans have been eating genetically engineered corn and soybeans for years. Now, scientists are redoing fish. Farm raised Atlantic salmon just might become the first genetically engineered animal to be eaten by people. This salmon's got a new gene that makes it grow to maturity in 18 months, rather than three years. As NPR's April Fulton reports, the Food and Drug Administration will have to decide whether it thinks the salmon is safe to eat and safe for the environment.
APRIL FULTON: Scientists at the FDA will tell an advisory panel this morning that a genetically engineered salmon is as safe to eat as regular Atlantic salmon. They based that on studies from AquaBounty Technologies, the company that wants to market the salmon.
The company says that its genetically engineered salmon contains the same nutrients, the same fatty acids and the same minerals as natural salmon. And it tastes the same, too.
But critics say that the FDA is moving too fast. It hasn't gathered enough information, and it's relied too heavily on small studies. Michael Hansen is a senior scientist with Consumers Union.
Mr. MICHAEL HANSEN (Consumers Union): They need more data. They need more data on the allergy question, and I think most any allergy scientist would say the same thing.
Fish is one of the top five foods people are most allergic to. Hansen says the small sample size for some tests - only six fish in one case - makes it difficult to prove that the new product would not trigger a greater allergic reaction in people already sensitive to salmon.
Hansen is also concerned that the data comes from genetically engineered salmon developed on Prince Edward Island in Canada. The climate could make a big difference.
Mr. HANSEN: You would also want to produce them down in Panama, because that's what they're asking for approval for.
FULTON: Another contentious issue being debated today is what will happen if these salmon escape from fish farms into the wild. AquaBounty says not to worry. Ron Stotish is president and CEO.
Mr. RON STOTISH (CEO, AquaBounty): There is virtually no possibility of escape and interaction with wild populations.
FULTON: The fish eggs will be sterile, he says, and all will female. Plus, they'll grow them in tanks on land, not at sea.
Marine scientist Yonathan Zohar, of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, supports the approval of genetically engineered salmon. But he says the FDA should ask the company for more information about what might happen if the fish do somehow escape.
Dr. YONATHAN ZOHAR (University of Maryland Baltimore County): This is where maybe I would have liked to see a little bit more done. I'm not, like, 100 percent satisfied with the environmental risk assessment.
FULTON: He says it's important to find ways of increasing production of farmed fish. Wild stocks of many fish, not just salmon, are becoming depleted. And there's more demand for fish than the sea alone can provide.
Dr. ZOHAR: It's very nice, you know, to think about those wild - fish in the wild, wild Atlantic salmon, but we don't have any more wild Atlantic salmon.
FULTON: On another front, the FDA plans to hear Tuesday from the public about whether genetically-engineered salmon should be labeled for consumers.
One person worried about that is Jeff Black, owner of the BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant in Washington D.C. He prides himself on knowing his fish purveyors well, and thinks the public shouldn't be kept in the dark about where their food comes from.
Mr. JEFF BLACK (BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant): It should absolutely be labeled, and the public should be allowed to make their own decision. In the restaurant industry we have what's called truth in menu. And truth in menu requires me to tell the truth about the things I'm serving.
FULTON: In the documents it released before the meetings, the FDA said if the flesh of the genetically engineered salmon is essentially the same as the traditionally raised salmon, a new label is not required.
April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.
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