Suit challenges approval of genetically engineered salmon

A coalition of environmental, consumer and fishing organizations this week sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approving a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon designed to grow quickly.

The man-made salmon was created by AquaBounty Technologies Inc. using DNA from Atlantic salmon, Pacific king salmon and Arctic ocean eelpout.

The coalition said the FDA is the first government agency to approve a GE animal for commercial sale and consumption.

The coalition, represented by legal counsel from Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, includes Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Golden Gate Salmon Association, Kennebec Reborn, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, Ecology Action Centre, Food & Water Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Cascadia Wildlands and Center for Food Safety.

The groups said that by approving the GE salmon, the FDA determined it would not require labeling of the GE fish to let consumers know what they are buying, which led Congress to call for labeling in the 2016 omnibus spending bill.

The GE salmon from AquaBounty will travel about 5,000 miles to reach U.S. supermarkets. The company will produce the GE salmon eggs on Prince Edward Island, Canada. The GE salmon will then be grown to market-size in a facility in Panama, processed into fillets and shipped to the United States.

Later, AquaBounty plans to grow GE fish in the United States for global sales.

The lawsuit challenges FDA’s claim that it has authority to approve and regulate GE animals as “animal drugs” under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The coalition contends the law was meant to ensure the safety of veterinary drugs administered to treat disease in livestock and  not intended to address entirely new GE animals. The approval of the GE salmon also opens the door to other genetically engineered fish and shellfish, as well as chickens, cows, sheep, goats, rabbits and pigs that are reportedly in development.

The lawsuit also accuses the FDA of failing to protect the environment and consult wildlife agencies in its review process, as required by federal law.

Atlantic salmon and many populations of Pacific salmon are protected by the Endangered Species Act and in danger of extinction. Salmon is a keystone species and unique runs have been treasured by residents for thousands of years. Diverse salmon runs today sustain thousands of American fishing families, and are highly valued in domestic markets as a healthy, domestic, “green” food.

When GE salmon escape or are accidentally released into the environment, the new species could threaten wild populations by mating with endangered salmon species, outcompeting them for scarce resources and habitat, and/or introducing new diseases. Studies have shown that there is a high risk for GE organisms to escape into the natural environment, and that GE salmon can crossbreed with native fish. Transgenic contamination has become common in the GE plant context, where contamination episodes have cost U.S. farmers billions of dollars over the past decade.  In wild organisms like fish, it could be even more damaging.

Statements from the coalition on the GE salmon suit

George Kimbrell, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety: “FDA’s decision is as unlawful as it is irresponsible. This case is about protecting our fisheries and ocean ecosystems from the foreseeable harms of the first-ever GE fish, harms FDA refused to even consider, let alone prevent. But it’s also about the future of our food: FDA should not, and cannot, responsibly regulate this GE animal, nor any future GE animals, by treating them as drugs under a 1938 law.”

Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy: “FDA has not answered crucial questions about the environmental risks posed by these fish or what can happen when these fish escape. We need these answers now and the FDA must be held to a higher standard. We are talking about the mass production of a highly migratory GE fish that could threaten some of the last remaining wild salmon on the planet. This isn’t the time to skimp on analysis and simply hope for the best.”

Ed Friedman from Friends of Merrymeeting Bay: “Atlantic salmon populations including our endangered Gulf of Maine fish are hanging on by a thread – they can’t afford additional threats posed by GE salmon. The law requires agencies like FDA, who aren’t fisheries biologists, to get review and approval from scientists with that expertise. FDA’s refusal to do this before allowing commercialization of GE salmon is not only irresponsible, it violates the law.”

Mark Butler, policy director at Ecology Action Centre in Nova Scotia: “On Prince Edward Island and across Atlantic Canada, indigenous peoples, anglers and community groups are working hard to protect and restore endangered salmon populations and rivers. Genetic contamination threatens all this work and in return there is little or no economic benefit to the region."

Golden Gate Salmon Association executive director John McManus: "There’s never been a farmed salmon that hasn’t eventually escaped into the natural environment. Why should we believe that long term, these frankenfish won’t be the same?”

Dune Lankard, a salmon fisherman and the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska representative: “Once they escape, you can’t put these transgenic fish back in the bag. They’re manufactured to outgrow wild salmon, and if they cross-breed, it could have irreversible impacts on the natural world. This kind of dangerous tinkering could easily morph into a disaster for wild salmon that will be impossible to undo.”

Gabriel Scott, Alaska legal director for Cascadia Wildlands: “FDA’s action threatens and disrespects the wild salmon ecosystems, cultures and industries that are treasured here in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. These folks think a salmon is just a packet of protein, but we in Salmon Nation know better. From Alaska to California, Americans are intimately related with diverse runs of salmon and we’ve learned their unique attributes and incredible value. We’ve worked very hard to be good stewards of our natural heritage, and refuse to allow that to be undone by one company’s irresponsible experiment.”

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch: “The FDA has failed to adequately examine the risks associated with transgenic salmon. The long-term effects of people eating genetically modified foods have never been adequately addressed—and this GE salmon is no exception. This fish is unnecessary, so why take the risk?”

Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth: “It’s clear that the market has rejected GE salmon despite FDA’s reckless approval. Major retailers including Costco, Safeway and Kroger won’t sell it and polls show the vast majority of people don’t want to eat it. Yet under this approval it won’t be labeled, violating our fundamental right to know what we are feeding our families.”

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