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A Salmon on Every Plate


President Herbert Hoover supposedly promised Americans “a chicken in every pot” during his 1928 campaign. Chicken was an expensive delicacy then, so his message was about raising living standards, not ending hunger. Today, chicken is a low-cost source of protein and a mainstay of the American diet.


FDA Matters hopes that salmon (and other fish) will also become sources of low-cost protein over the next two decades. FDA is nearing the end of a long regulatory process, the outcome of which could be approval of a faster growing genetically-engineered Atlantic salmon. FDA must overcome opposition from environmental groups…and politicians and companies trying to protect the market for Pacific salmon.


The health benefits of fish are well-known. They are also a valuable source of dietary protein. However, our oceans are over-fished and aquaculture is now the source of almost 50% of the fish consumed worldwide. Expanding the availability of fish products meets a growing demand and is an important component of improved nutrition for Americans.


The proposal before FDA is for a genetically-engineered (GE) salmon that is biologically and chemically identical to the Atlantic salmon that is served in restaurants and at our own tables. The only difference is the inclusion of a Chinook salmon gene that provides the potential to grow Atlantic salmon to market size in about half the time.


Opponents have labeled the product as “Franken-fish.” It’s a catchy slogan that tries to vilify over a decade of scientific research and discredit several years of FDA review. Ultimately, the appeal is to emotion—that something dramatically new and different must automatically be dangerous. Decisions about new and different products are hard for FDA, as I wrote a few week weeks ago in a column entitled: “FDA and Things that Might Go Bump in the Night.”  


Approval of genetically-engineered animals will always require serious consideration of safety, environmental and ethical issues.  In this case—FDA’s first application for approval of a GE food product–the agency has been fortunate to have what might be considered a favorable factual context. No one questions the legitimate demands for more plentiful, high quality supplies of salmon. Further, the sponsor has agreed upon multiple redundant safeguards. For example, the GE salmon will be only sterile females and will be grown in inland fisheries with no access to either wild or farmed salmon stocks.


FDA has done its homework—digging deep into the relevant science and taking the time to consider all aspects of the issue. An agency decision is considered imminent and likely to be favorable….unless Congress tells it otherwise. A showdown may occur this week when the Senate considers the FY 12 appropriations bill for the Agriculture Department and FDA.


The House version already contains restrictive language forbidding the agency from spending any of its FY 12 monies to approve the application. However, according to some reports, only about a dozen Representatives were present when the amendment was adopted by voice vote during floor consideration.


In contrast, when the issue comes before the Senate this week, there will be debate and almost certainly a vote. Currently, about a dozen Senators are known to support the ban, with most of them from Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington, states that are the primary sources of Pacific salmon sold in the United States. 


Healthy, affordable high-protein food is always a desirable dietary option. At some time in the future, salmon could be as affordable as chicken if we allow the development of salmon that can be grown faster.  


The current fight is not just about “a salmon on every plate.” It is also about whether Congress will substitute its political judgments for FDA’s scientific decisionmaking. FDA Matters hopes that enough Senators will vote for FDA and against regional economic interests that want to protect existing sources of salmon production.



More information about salmon, aquaculture regulation of genetically-engineered foods and the current controversy can be found at: http://www.fda.gov/AdvisoryCommittees/CommitteesMeetingMaterials/VeterinaryMedicineAdvisoryCommittee/ucm222635.htm and http://www.aquabounty.com/PressRoom/#l7

FDA and Things that Might Go Bump in the Night      September 18th, 2011

FDA’s everyday business requires balancing risk and benefit as these might apply to a particular medical product or a new food. Occasionally, FDA is faced with a much larger responsibility: judging a breakthrough technology that could bring great benefit or great sorrow to humankind. Who can confidently know in advance which it will be?

Still, FDA must decide. If they say “yes,” whole new industries and benefit may be created for patients and consumers. Or, the world and humankind may be subject to devastation. Today, the agency is faced with just such challenges in dealing with nanotechnology, genetically-engineered (GE) animals, and synthetic biology. Read the rest of this entry

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