On Halloween, AquaBounty, the company that wants to feed you genetically engineered (GE) salmon, saw its fortunes change. A well-connected biotech company called Intrexon swooped in to buy around half the stock of the near-bankrupt AquaBounty.
Intrexon is run by the former head of Monsanto and a former vice-president from Pfizer and McDonalds. Intrexon’s senior vice president and animal science head is Thomas Kasser, a 20-year veteran from Monsanto, where he worked on recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). This highly controversial drug was eventually used to increase milk production, mostly by factory farms. Kasser boasts his experience guiding Monsanto products through the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, the same agency reviewing GE salmon.
Like rBGH, GE salmon exhibits high levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (or IGF), a hormone that has been linked to a variety of cancers in humans. GE salmon express 40 percent higher rates of the hormone than non-GE salmon, suggesting a significant risk to consumers. The American Cancer Society acknowledges the link between IGF-1 and cancer, but has stated that more independent science is needed before any conclusions can be made about the safety of products like rBGH.
Well, that’s the job of the FDA, which, as usual, is asleep at the switch. The federal agency approved rBGH in 1993 and it became widely used in American dairies for about a decade, despite concerns over IGF-1 and the fact that most other industrialized nations banned it. After more science emerged, many American companies, including Kroger, Walmart and Starbucks, took the extraordinary measure of independently banning rBGH from their products.
Do we really want to repeat this dangerous practice of fast-tracking untested “innovations” into our food system? According to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, the answer is yes: GE salmon is slated for approval “very soon,” even though most consumers don’t want to see the fish hit the market.
This is troubling because the FDA will base its regulatory decision on the woefully inadequate and biased data provided by AquaBounty. Independent scientists have skewered the FDA’s risk assessment, noting that serious environmental concerns have not been examined while food safety issues, related to hormone levels and allergies, have been glossed over. AquaBounty hasn’t even demonstrated that GE salmon can grow faster than non-GE salmon, the whole reason they say it should be approved.
Nor do we know if the gene construct used in GE salmon is safe for the fish. Before rGBH was approved by the FDA, outside observers raised concerns over the health impacts of rBGH on cattle, which were later confirmed in subsequent studies. The hormone causes increased rates of infections that require antibiotic use, driving antibiotic resistance, a major public health problem. In the same way, the very limited data we have on GE salmon shows deformities and malformations in GE salmon that you don’t see in non-GE salmon. The data, while severely flawed, also suggests that GE salmon may be dying prematurely.
Finally, rBGH and GE salmon share similar labeling concerns. The FDA refused to require labeling of dairy products containing rBGH, and even attempts by companies to label their products as rBGH-free resulted in major legal battles. We can fully expect that FDA’s regulatory approval of GE salmon will usher in another round of unlabeled biotech food products.
Unfortunately, regulatory decisions at the FDA seem guided as much by money and politics as they are by science. AquaBounty and its major biotech ally, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, spent $8 million lobbying in 2011 alone, trying to influence rules and regulations over issues like GE salmon. With former Monsanto executives now backing GE salmon, we can expect Intrexon will be working hard to muscle GE salmon through the FDA.
Consumers don’t have million-dollar accounts with K-street lobbyists, but we do have a powerful voice of opposition, one that has effectively put the brakes on this untested laboratory experiment for more than two years. Let’s keep up the pressure.