Breaking News on Food & Beverage Development - North America

Responsible approach to GM fish is to assume escape: Committee hearing

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 19-Dec-2011

Related topics: Meat, fish and savory ingredients, Regulation, The GM debate, Sustainable sourcing

The responsible approach to considering whether genetically engineered (GE) salmon pose a risk to the environment is to assume that the fish will escape and disregard assurances from the company that they would not, said Senator Mark Begich at a committee hearing on Thursday.

“The prudent and responsible approach here is to assume the fish will escape,” said Senator Begich (D-AK) at a hearing of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Begich called the hearing to discuss the potential environmental impacts of genetically engineered salmon, but said the food safety aspects would be left to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“If these fish were to get out into the wild they could wreak havoc on marine and freshwater ecosystems,” Begich said. “…I’m not convinced that this agency has the scientific expertise to assess the environmental impacts.”

Begich also introduced Senate bill 1717, to "prevent the escapement of genetically altered salmon in the United States" , which would prohibit the sale of the fish within the United States but continue to allow research using GE fish for purposes such as medical developments, he said.

The fish, dubbed AquAvantage by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty, which developed it, is Atlantic salmon given the growth hormone gene of the faster-growing Pacific salmon, along with DNA from the eel-like ocean pout. The company claims that the resulting salmon reaches maturity twice as fast as regular Atlantic salmon, and requires 25% less food.

During the hearing, CEO of AquaBounty, Ron Stotish, defended the company’s precautions to prevent AquAvantage fish from escaping.

He said: “Our hatchery is designed with multiple redundant physical barriers that prevent escape of any life stage. We’ve operated this hatchery for over 15 years, been inspected on multiple occasions by a variety of federal agencies from two countries, and never lost a single fish.”

Precautions taken by the firm in an attempt to avoid impacting wild fish populations include confining the fish to culture systems and geographic regions that minimize their chance of escape and subsequent survival, and a sterile, all-female fish population.

Other witnesses that appeared before the committee were John Epifanio of the Illinois Natural History Survey, Paul Greenberg, journalist and author, and George Leonard, aquaculture program director at Ocean Conservancy. They all urged caution about allowing the sale of GE fish.