Updated Friday, December 21, 2012 at 10:16 PM
WASHINGTON — Salmon that have been genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as their natural counterparts inched a little closer toward the nation’s dinner tables Friday.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its findings that the fish do not pose a threat to the environment and are “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.”
That removed a key hurdle for a Massachusetts-based company seeking to market the modified salmon, which critics derisively have dubbed “Frankenfish.”
But the move also reignited a long-running debate over whether a nation that already grows and consumes genetically modified plants such as corn and soybeans is prepared to make a similar leap when it comes to animals.
Food-safety activists, environmental groups and traditional salmon-fishing industries oppose such a step and are part of a broader global struggle over the use of genetically modified foods.
Countries in the European Union have banned some genetically modified foods outright and instituted tight labeling requirements on foods that contain modified ingredients. Countries such as Russia, Japan and Peru also have restrictions on genetically altered foods.
AquAdvantage, the fast-growing fish at the center of the controversy in the United States, is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone from a chinook salmon and has been given a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The result is a fish that grows larger and faster than traditional salmon.
Under the company’s proposal, no modified salmon would be produced in America. The eggs would be produced at a facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada and shipped to another facility in Panama, where they would be harvested and processed. In its assessment, the FDA said the likelihood that the altered fish could escape containment and reproduce in the wild is “extremely remote.”
Friday’s assessment could pave the way for ultimate approval of the engineered fish. The FDA must first take comments from the public for 60 days before finalizing it. After that, the agency will decide whether to give AquaBounty the green light to begin marketing its fish to Americans.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly those from the Northwest, have backed legislation that would ban the fish outright or require specific labeling about its origins.
“The notion that consuming Frankenfish is safe for the public and our oceans is a joke,” Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said Friday.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was more blunt. “You keep those damn fish out of my waters. It will ruin what I think is one of the finest products in the world,” he said in an interview.
A genetically modified salmon is seen at rear and a traditional salmon is in the foreground.