Your Million-Dollar GE Salmon
By Tim Schwab
You probably don’t know it, but you’re already paying dearly for genetically engineered (GE) salmon. Though many consumers have told the FDA that they don’t want this dangerous fish on their dinner plates, taxpayers have already wracked up a tab for one million dollars.
That’s how much the FDA has already spent reviewing the risks of GE salmon, according to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Food & Water Watch.
True, a comprehensive and rigorous risk assessment can be expensive, and it should be conducted by regulatory agencies like the FDA, not the companies that stand to profit from selling a new product. Let’s face it, comprehensive and rigorous assessment isn’t what is happening at the FDA. The FDA’s million-dollar effort on GE salmon appears to be less geared towards protecting consumers and more of a public relations exercise to convince the public that GE salmon is safe and good. Or, as the FDA might say, not unsafe and not bad.
The agency’s risk assessment utilizes extremely weak data that has been crudely manipulated to make GE salmon appear safe. Professor Anne Kapuscinski of Dartmouth College, an expert on the subject of environmental assessment of GE fish, notes, “…My main concern was that the kind of data presented had gaps, and the quality of the analysis of the data, especially the statistical analysis, was really quite a low bar.”
The FDA has gotten it wrong from the very beginning: it chose to regulate GE salmon as it would regulate a drug, not a food—even though consumers could end up eating it. This means that the FDA is not comprehensively examining many critical dimensions surrounding the food safety of GE salmon as an actual food product for human consumption.
Independent scientists have criticized the risk assessment for GE salmon due to the agency’s heavy dependence on very small sample sizes. Using only a handful of GE salmon in their assessment makes the FDA’s subsequent statistical analysis questionable at best. Their analysis did demonstrate that their small sample of GE salmon showed 40 percent higher rates of a hormone linked to cancer and 20 to 50 percent higher allergenic rates—along with higher rates of physical deformities in GE salmon—but the FDA’s conclusion focused on the fact that it could not detect a difference between GE and non-GE salmon. This is how they determined that GE salmon is safe.
FDA has also given short shrift to the environmental damage that GE salmon can cause. AquaBounty’s entire production platform is devised around the idea that GE salmon will not escape into the wild—because if they do, they pose well-documented risks to wild salmon and other aquatic species. Food & Water Watch recently uncovered documents showing that AquaBounty has already “lost” an entire generation of GE salmon, following an “unusually severe storm” and a mechanical problem at its grow-out facility. The FDA, either unaware or unwilling, has never disclosed to the public its knowledge of this event—which sounds an awful lot like thousands of GE salmon escaping. Check out Ari LeVaux’s great article on this in Outside Magazine.
The FDA has also failed to critically examine the only purported benefit of GE salmon: that it grows twice as fast as non-GE salmon. Salmon growers have called AquaBounty’s growth rate claims bogus and have said that existing non-GE salmon actually can grow faster than GE salmon
FDA approval of GE salmon would set a dangerous precedent, with no redeeming value, that doesn’t belong in the marketplace. Salmon growers have said so. Consumers have said so. Independent scientists have said so. It’s past time for the FDA to admit it and start allocating its precious resources toward real solutions that improve our food system.
Let’s restore sound science or common sense at the FDA. Tell the FDA Commissioner to put the brakes on GE salmon.