Reporter Ari LeVaux dropped two bombshells in yesterday’s story for Outside. The first revelation, uncovered by Food & Water Watch researcher Tim Schwab, is that in 2008 an unusually severe storm in Panama caused damage to a production unit that contained genetically modified salmon. As a result, the fish were lost.
The salmon belonged to AquaBounty Technology, the same company that has been petitioning the FDA to approve the world’s first genetically modified animal intended for human consumption.
Why is this incident important?
“It has never been revealed before,” Schwab tells TakePart. “Our main concern is this event has never been disclosed by the FDA or regulatory process before, and suggests that mistakes can and do happen. The FDA really should be looking at events like this and bring them into the larger public discourse on the safety of GE salmon, and it hasn’t.”
But, according to LeVaux, the storm story doesn’t exactly add up.
“Historical data from a weather station near the Panamanian facility suggest that, contrary to what the company told its investors, there was nothing “unusually severe” about the storm. In fact, it isn’t clear which storm the memo is even referring to,” he writes.
Suzanne Turner, AquaBounty spokesperson, told LeVaux that a tree fell on an intake pipe, which resulted in the fish suffocating, meaning they died, rather than escaped. She also informed LeVaux that the location of the tanks that housed the genetically modified salmon were “on top of a mountain and is intentionally far away from any waterways, so there’s no possibility of escape.”
LeVaux says that’s not exactly accurate either, and points to a 2010 FDA briefing packet that does make mention of an adjacent river, which makes sense. Fish need a water source.
Although there were no reports of the genetically engineered fish escaping the Panama facility—nor making their way to the nearby river—the incident still sounded alarms. If the fallen tree crushed an intake pipe, could a slight change in its trajectory have allowed genetically modified salmon to escape? Possibly.
“The old adage ‘stuff happens’ applies here. Storms knock down trees. Earthquakes, floods and fires happen,” says George Leonard, director of strategic initiatives at Ocean Conservancy. And while the likelihood of a fish in a closed system surviving outside the tanks is slim—there’s been no quantitative evaluation of these scenarios, he says, and reminds us that rivers are connected to watersheds.
TakePart reached out to AquaBounty to comment on the Outside story, but they declined our request to go on record. The FDA also did not respond to questions submitted by TakePart on the 2008 incident, the pending application, or timeline for approval.
We didn’t expect LeVaux’s second jaw-dropper.
We do know that the U.S. is not the only country to be working on genetically modified animals, including fish, but LeVaux says the work could be farther along than many of us suspect.
“It would be impossible to track down every lab on earth, especially those that are independently funded and not applying for patents or approvals. It’s possible that gene escapes have already happened, or the GE fish are secretly being grown somewhere and fed to us,” he writes.
On the surface, that sounds a little paranoid, but LeVaux goes on to say that during an FDA Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC) meeting, fisheries biologist Eric Silberhorn hinted that GE shrimp were already in the food supply.
Wait. What? Genetically engineered shrimp, already here? That’s the first time we’ve heard anything close to that, so we asked around.
“No one that we are aware of is working on GE shrimp, mainly due to the high cost and uncertain outcome of such a monumental biotech project. That is not to say that in some R&D facility somewhere in a country that has less or no regulation, some intrepid scientist is not injecting shrimp eggs with genetic constructs, but if they are, they are at least a decade away from a commercial reality,” says Jose Villalon, vice president, aquaculture for the World Wildlife Fund, which is actively launching the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. (ASC’s goal is to certify good aquaculture practices, similar to the way the Marine Stewardship Council certifies wild fisheries.)
Leonard says he too is not aware of anyone genetically tweaking shrimp, but says that seafood is an unlabeled commodity, with low inspection rates: “Those that are sampled are not sampled for genetic identity, which means we have no idea if [genetically engineered shrimp] is here or not.”
Expert Anne Kapuscinski, professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, told LeVaux that she’s not aware of any GM shrimp being grown commercially, but said it’s plausible.
The FDA did not respond to our specific question on genetically modified shrimp.
In the end, the news of the 2008 Panama incident, and questions raised about the genetic modification of other species, brings the circle back around to the issue of labeling. Do consumers have the right to know if the food they’re eating is genetically modified or not? And are their voices being heard during the FDA process? That’s a hot topic this election year, and extends well beyond tweaked shrimp or salmon.
Clare Leschin-Hoar covers seafood, sustainability and food politics. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, Grist, Eating Well and many more. @c_leschin