Lawsuit Charges FDA Ignored Safety Warnings About GMO Salmon

Consumer, fisheries, and environmental groups have sued the agency over its approval of AquaBounty’s product.
GMO salmon eggs at an AquaBounty facility in Waltham, Massachusetts. (Photo: Barcroft USA/Getty Images)
Apr 1, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The controversy over genetically engineered salmon is headed to court.

Several environmental, consumer, and fishing groups filed suit on Thursday against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over its approval of a lab-developed fish that combines genes from three fish species: Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, and Arctic eelpout.

The lawsuit contends that the FDA ignored advice from federal fisheries and wildlife scientists to delay or deny the application and made the approval “without disclosing or analyzing the significant environmental effects from this foreseeable expansion.”

These effects include the potential for the genetically engineered salmon to escape into the ocean and interbreed with wild salmon, compete with native fish for food and habitat, and spread infectious diseases that incubate in crowded fish farms.

RELATED: For the First Time Ever, the FDA Will Allow a GMO Animal to Be Sold in the U.S.

Many wild salmon species are endangered. But the FDA failed to complete consultations with federal agencies that enforce the Endangered Species Act, the lawsuit charges.

The engineered salmon, developed by the Boston-based AquaBounty Technologies, reaches maturity in about half the time of its naturally evolved cousins, and on less food, making it more profitable for fish farmers.

AquaBounty spokesperson Dave Conley said the company plans to produce salmon only in facilities located on land to prevent their escape and interbreeding with other fish.

Under the plan approved by the FDA in November, the company will produce genetically engineered eggs at a facility on Canada’s Prince Edward Island and fly them to a location in Panama, where they will hatch and mature before eventually being exported to the United States.

Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, which filed the lawsuit jointly with Earthjustice, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Food & Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, and several other organizations, said the egg-producing facility on Prince Edward Island was problematic.

“I have been to the facility. It’s 120 feet from the sound, and that’s not deep inland,” Hanson said. “Prince Edward Island has been hit by large hurricanes in the past, similar to [superstorm] Sandy, and the whole facility could be washed out.”

Hanson said the company has claimed there are no wild salmon in the waters off Prince Edward Island, but he said federal researchers found Atlantic salmon within a mile of the facility.

Aside from the new legal challenge, marketing the hybrid fish, at least in the United States, still faces some hurdles.

In February, the FDA issued an import ban on genetically modified salmon until labeling standards can be established, following a directive passed by Congress late last year. The ban effectively makes it impossible to stock and sell the salmon in the U.S. in the near term.

Several polls show that the vast majority of American consumers want genetically modified foods to be labeled as such.

Meanwhile, last November, the retail giant Costco said it will not sell genetically modified fish, joining supermarket chains such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Kroger in promising not to sell the genetically modified fish, according to environmental group Friends of the Earth.

George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, called AquaBounty’s plan to produce eggs in Canada and raise the fish in Panama “a smokescreen to try to crack open regulatory doors to produce genetically engineered salmon in other places, including the United States.”

According to an email exchange from 2011 between National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff members, obtained by the Center for Food Safety under the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received “several requests from companies” in the U.S. to import eggs from AquaBounty’s gene-engineered salmon.

When asked to comment on the lawsuit, AquaBounty’s Conley provided a link to a Factcheck.org article, which noted that based “on research primarily conducted by AquaBounty scientists and consultations with independent researchers,” the FDA found that “GE salmon is not likely to pose a risk to the health and safety of humans or wild salmon populations.”

Under the plan greenlit by the FDA, according to FactCheck.org, AquaBounty will only produce sterile female fish that cannot interbreed with other salmon.

But according to the lawsuit, the FDA has acknowledged that up to 5 percent of the salmon produced in Canada may not be sterile.

In response to a request for comment, FDA spokesperson Juli Putnam stated in an email that the agency does not comment on matters related to pending litigation.