FDA Approves the First Genetically Engineered Animal for Food Use

In case you don’t get email updates from the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the administration announced today that genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as non-genetically engineered salmon.

After an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, FDA has arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.

The FDA scientists rigorously evaluated extensive data submitted by the manufacturer, AquaBounty Technologies, and other peer-reviewed data, to assess whether AquAdvantage salmon met the criteria for approval established by law; namely, safety and effectiveness. The data demonstrated that the inserted genes remained stable over several generations of fish, that food from the GE salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals, that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish, and the salmon meets the sponsor’s claim about faster growth.

In addition, FDA assessed the environmental impacts of approving this application and found that the approval would not have a significant impact on the environment of the United States. That’s because the multiple containment measures the company will use in the land-based facilities in Panama and Canada make it extremely unlikely that the fish could escape and establish themselves in the wild.

What is genetic engineering? Essentially, the DNA — the molecule that contains the ‘blueprint’ for an organism, found in every single cell of the organism — is modified by inserting a foreign piece of DNA that codes for a desirable trait (which the animal currently does not have).

Why is this such a powerful tool? Before artificial mechanisms like genetic engineering, farmers bred animals to select for the best possible traits — e.g., the pig with the fastest growth rate, or the horse with the sleekest mane. Genetic engineering allows one to isolate and select for the specific enhancing trait that one desires in an animal, and insert traits of other species that wouldn’t be possible with normal reproduction (e.g., inserting glow in the dark genes from jellyfish into certain cells in a mouse, so that mouse cells glow in the dark).

Why might genetic engineering be a concern? The actual risks are unclear, but there are several ethical and environmental concerns surrounding genetic engineering. One is that modified organisms, if not properly contained, could be released into the wild and alter natural ecological relationships — for instance, the seeds of herbicide-resistant crops could easily be spread by birds to areas where the plants are not desirable but cannot be controlled with conventional herbicides. Ethically speaking, how might genetically modifying a pig to grow 3x as fast as normal affect the animal’s welfare?

Genetically-engineered plants have been in our food supply since the 1990s, but this is the first time genetically engineered animals have entered the food supply. Read more (and access the full review) at http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm472487.htm.

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