TOPICS > Health

How Safe Would Genetically Modified Salmon Be to Eat?

September 20, 2010 at 6:20 PM EDT
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the process of deciding whether to allow genetically modified salmon to be sold to American consumers and how to label them if they are sold. Margaret Warner gets two perspectives.

GWEN IFILL: Next: questions over whether to allow genetically engineered animals in the marketplace. Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: For salmon lovers, the choice facing them at the supermarket is now, fresh salmon or wild? But, soon, there may be another option: salmon that have been genetically modified to grow faster.

The Food and Drug Administration is holding three days of hearings this week on whether to permit the new breed to be sold. Though genetically modified crops are widely used in packaged foods, this salmon, if OKed, would be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption.

Today’s FDA advisory committee hearing pitted consumer and environmental advocates warning of potential dangers to the health of humans and wild fish against promoters like the CEO of the Massachusetts company, AquaBounty, which is seeking the approval.

The FDA must also decide whether to require the genetically modified salmon to be labeled as such.

For our own debate, we turn to Val Giddings, an independent biotechnology consultant to governments and companies. He’s former vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Association — Organization, which is advocating approval. He has also advised AquaBounty in the past on unrelated matters. And Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union and the publisher of “Consumer Reports” — that is, Consumers Union is the publisher of “Consumer Reports.” Both men attended today’s FDA advisory hearing outside Washington.

And welcome to you both. We will just pick up the debate where it left off. Mr. Giddings let me begin with you. Why does this company and the industry want to genetically modify fish, particularly salmon?

VAL GIDDINGS, Independent Biotechnology Consultant: Well, it provides a predictable and safe way of improving the supply of a healthy and nutritious fish that we should all be eating more of. And it promises to deliver it through a production method that will reduce or eliminate all those concerns environmentalists have about hatcheries, fish raised in hatcheries or in sea pens.

MARGARET WARNER: But the advantage is what? The fish are going to going to grow bigger or that…

VAL GIDDINGS: It reaches market size in about half the time of conventionally farmed salmon.

MARGARET WARNER: So you can produce a lot more?

VAL GIDDINGS: Yes, you can produce them more quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Hansen, what is the objection to that? It seems a laudable objective, particularly when we are concerned about overpressure on the wild salmon population.

MICHAEL HANSEN, senior staff scientist, Consumers Union: Well, the concern is, just like with any other genetically engineered organism, there could be potential both health effects and adverse environmental effects associated with these fish.

MARGARET WARNER: And what health effect in particular?

MICHAEL HANSEN: Well, I should say that the data package that was submitted to the agency is very poor science and woefully inadequate. But there was data in there that looked at allergenicity that suggested that there could be an increased risk of increasing the allergic potential for these fish. And allergies can be a fatal, life-threatening illness.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, before we go any further, let’s briefly, in a nutshell — and I will start with you, Mr. Giddings — explain the science. How do you genetically modify a fish? And are you modifying the fish or the eggs?

VAL GIDDINGS: Well, I do want to come back to the allergy issue, because that’s…

MARGARET WARNER: And then we’re going to get to that.

VAL GIDDINGS: That is particularly important to me.

MARGARET WARNER: But just to help people understand what we are talking about here.

VAL GIDDINGS: This fish was created by inserting a sequence of DNA into the egg of the parental fish from which all this line is descended.

And that DNA sequence that was inserted is a combination of a gene that encodes for a growth hormone from a chinook salmon with an on switch that turns this gene on, so that it is expressed, taken from another fish. So, everything that is put in here comes from fish that we’re familiar with.

And the result is a fish that, in terms of its material composition, is indistinguishable from wild or otherwise farmed salmon.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say material composition, in other words, for someone buying it at the market, does it look the same, taste the same, smell the same?

VAL GIDDINGS: Well, the most likely difference anyone is likely to notice is it will probably be of a higher quality, because the — one of the advantages of the production system that is intended for this is that it will be able to be grown in much closer proximity to major population centers, in closed-circuit, contained systems, meaning that the time — the distance to travel to market will be far less.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. How do you see the science and what the resulting product is?

MICHAEL HANSEN: Well, one simple thing with the science. The FDA themselves said that one of the potential risk issues surrounds some of the hormone-like compounds that are in this fish.

So, particularly for this chinook salmon growth hormone that they put into these fish, the method they used to test the fish was so insensitive that, when they looked at 73 fish that they tested, they couldn’t detect the growth hormone in any of them. So, that means zero data.

And they conclude from there is no biologically significant difference between the fish in terms of growth hormone level. Well, if you don’t have any data, you don’t know. And the second hormone that they looked at, again, the fish that they want to sell on the market, they couldn’t detect it at all.

So, when with you use insensitive methods, and you can’t detect anything, you can’t conclude that it is safe or there is no problem, because you don’t know what the differences are.

MARGARET WARNER: So, back to the potential for allergic reaction, Mr. Giddings, how can the company say or the FDA assess whether or not there is a danger either in too much growth hormone in this fish or other allergic potential ingredients?

VAL GIDDINGS: There are a variety of techniques that you can use. But they all involve the state-of-the-art analytical methods, which have, in this case, been used.

On the allergenicity issue in particular, it is frustrating to hear activists raise this as a concern. My son has a life-threatening food allergy. I’m particularly interested in this issue. Most folks are not allergic to salmon. People — those small number of people who are, it is a serious problem. And those people shouldn’t eat this salmon, just as they shouldn’t eat any other salmon.

But folks — but most folks can eat this salmon being confident that they are no more likely to cause allergies to them than others, because there is nothing that has been added that would increase the allergenicity profile. There are no novel proteins with which we are unfamiliar. The issue of a potential allergy risk here is completely made up. It’s not real. And it’s not going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about the other issue, if you don’t mind, that opponents have raised, which is, could it somehow infect the wild salmon population?

MICHAEL HANSEN: Well, the concern over it infecting the wild population is if it escapes. The problem is, they’re only looking at two facilities right now in two countries outside the U.S.

So, the concern that environmentalists have is what if down the road they’re selling this and people are growing it in all sorts of different countries or in different parts of the U.S.? They have only done an environmental assessment for one facility, not for if it’s produced elsewhere.

MARGARET WARNER: But the danger is what?

MICHAEL HANSEN: The danger is, if the fish gets out, it’s a lot more aggressive. It feeds more. It could outcompete not only salmon, but any other local native fish that are in there, because these engineered fish, they actually, not only feed more, but they search in many different places more than the regular salmon. So, that could have an impact.

MARGARET WARNER: You are shaking your head.

VAL GIDDINGS: These fish do not know how to hunt for food in the wild. They are trained to eat food pellets. When they see a shadow on the surface of the water, they rise to it, because they have associated that with the imminent arrival of lunch. Wild fish see a shadow, they head for the deeps, because they know that could be a predator.

These fish are sterile. They are reproductively incompetent. If they were grown in sea pens, it would represent a substantial improvement over the status quo, because they can’t mate.

MARGARET WARNER: By sea pens, you mean they are in the sea, but just netted off.

VAL GIDDINGS: That’s right, the way conventionally farmed salmon are group now. If these were salmon grown in that way, they would represent a substantial reduction in the potential hazard for wild populations because they are sterile.

MARGARET WARNER: OK. But that’s — you’re saying that’s not the way they’re going to be grown.

VAL GIDDINGS: But, no, these are designed to be grown, and the request for permission from FDA stipulate that they be grown in closed-circuit, contained systems, with a whole nested series of biological and physical containment measures to make sure that they won’t get out, but, even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to that?

MICHAEL HANSEN: Well, what was — what FDA said at the hearing today — when questions were raised about these other countries, like Panama, where one of the facilities is, what the FDA said is, well, the impact in the local country, they’re sovereign countries. It’s up for them to make a decision.

MARGARET WARNER: No, but setting aside what country it is in, is it true that they are going to be grown only in these enclosed pens, not attached to any other body of water?

MICHAEL HANSEN: Well, for the one facility that is down in Panama, that is correct. But I would also like to point out that, to produce these fish, you have to have — to produce the sterile females, you have to have engineered, sort of, reproductively active fish. They could potentially get out. And then there is the concern there, because you would have fertile fish. They also point out that only 5 percent — that up to 5 percent of these fish could not be sterile.

MARGARET WARNER: We have less than a minute left. Really quickly, if this is approved, does it open the door to other genetically modified — I will begin with you, Mr. Hansen — does it open — no, I will begin with you, Mr. Giddings — other genetically modified, you know, beef, pork, other animals?

VAL GIDDINGS: Well, if this is approved, it will demonstrate that there is a functional regulatory system that is able to look at the data and make a reasoned, science-based decision based on the data. We would hope that that would lead to further applications.

But they will require their own separate and unique examinations from FDA. And approving this doesn’t provide a rubber stamp for approving anything that might follow.


MICHAEL HANSEN: Yes, there are other engineered animals that are in the pipeline. There’s pigs and other things that are in the pipeline. This will help set the standard in a way of what is to come.

And the concern we have is the scientific — what the FDA is doing is, we think the science bar should be set very high, and they are setting it about an inch off the floor.

MARGARET WARNER: And, really briefly, you want these, this fish labeled. And you do not.

MICHAEL HANSEN: That’s correct.

VAL GIDDINGS: I think that consumers are entitled to labels that are accurate, informative, and not misleading. And I would hope that any label that is put on this fish meets those criteria.


MARGARET WARNER: Well, we will have to leave it there for another evening. Thank you both very much.

VAL GIDDINGS: Thank you.