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A Salmon on Every Plate/The Hard Road of Innovation


Chicken was once an expensive delicacy. In 1928, America’s quest for a better diet and a better standard of living was summarized by the campaign promise of “a chicken in every pot.” Today, chicken is a ubiquitous, low-cost source of protein, which we largely take for granted. Despite depletion of ocean-based stocks, fish hold similar potential.

To begin this transformation, FDA must approve a scientifically-based innovative product—a faster growing genetically-engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon. When FDA Matters wrote about this subject 18 months ago, I believed the agency was near to approval of this first-ever food product from a GE animal. It is still not resolved and there are implications for all innovations that require FDA approval.

Final comments on the “environmental assessment” of GE salmon are due to FDA in April. Hopefully, this is the final procedural step before a decision. Approval could come mid-year or may take months or may not happen at all. The agency is still dealing with the political fall-out of questionable safety claims 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 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 devalue over a decade of scientific research and undercut many years of FDA review. Ultimately, the appeal is to emotion—that something dramatically new and different must automatically be dangerous. At some point, scientific review and product safeguards should be sufficient for FDA to make a decision that is based on facts and not fears.

Decisions about new and different products are hard for FDA, as I wrote in a column entitled: “FDA and Things that Might Go Bump in the Night.”  Among other things, I reminded readers that in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, biotechnology was subject to the same types of concerns and evaluation as FDA is currently giving nanotechnology, GE food and synthetic biology. While there are risks to saying “yes” to innovation, there are also potentially large consequences to saying “no.” Imagine today’s world without biotechnology.

Approval of genetically-engineered animals will always require serious consideration of safety, environmental and ethical issues.  In this case, no one questions the legitimate demands for plentiful, high quality supplies of salmon. Further, the sponsor has agreed upon multiple redundant safeguards. For example, the GE salmon will be sterile females and grown in inland fisheries without access to either wild or farmed salmon stocks.

And yet, the years have piled up, waiting for FDA to be ready to say “yes” or “no” to GE salmon. This isn’t intended as a complaint about FDA…it’s really more of a reminder for the rest of us that a pro-innovation culture at FDA requires hard work from stakeholders.

Scientifically-based, well developed applications are a must. Those of us who support innovation must also make common cause. This is both policy-driven (e.g. by supporting development of regulatory science) and procedural (e.g. not complaining too loudly when FDA takes a somewhat longer deliberative path than we might like).

Further, brave thoughtful decisions by FDA are easier if they are met by public and stakeholder support. GE salmon may be a food, but FDA’s decision affects the environment in which drug, vaccine, and device innovation are also being judged.

Thus, the current fight is not just about “a salmon on every plate.” It is also about whether FDA has the resources and support to sort through the many “alternative futures” represented by the products submitted for its approval.


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

A final note: I almost never write about or even mention individual products because FDA Matters’ aim is to analyze and comment on policy, regulation, and FDA trends.

This column is an exception because I believe that FDA’s consideration of GE salmon is an important part of understanding the agency’s role in innovation and how such decisions can become far more difficult that they should be. I have no clients or financial interests in development of GE food products.  On the other hand, a salmon dinner is a favorite.

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