A salmon farm. (Photo: Clive Moss / Flickr)
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may have violated the Endangered Species Act when it failed to involve other federal agencies in an upcoming decision that could legalize genetically modified (GM) salmon for human consumption, according to a consumer protection group.
Food and Water Watch (FWW), a group that opposes GM salmon, on Monday released internal documents and emails sent among high-ranking Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials. The documents show that, as of last month, the FDA had not consulted the FWS about the threat GM salmon pose to endangered Atlantic salmon.
The documents were obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request.
The FWS officials echo conservationists who fear that GM salmon, which are genetically altered to grow much larger and faster than wild salmon, could escape from breeding areas and affect wild salmon populations.
"I also agree ... that using [genetically sterile] fish is not foolproof. Maybe [the FDA] should watch Jurassic Park," FWS geneticist Denise Hawkins wrote to a coworker in September.
If approved, the salmon would be the first GM animal food approved for human consumption. Critics often affectionately refer to GM salmon as "frankenfish."
FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey told Truthout that the salmon would be raised in inland tanks in Canada and Panama, and not in open-water farms as some opponents have claimed. AquaBounty Technologies, the company that proposed to produce the GM salmon, has proposed a plan to contain the salmon.
DeLancey did not respond to a request for a response to the consumer protection activist's claim that the FDA allegedly ignored the Endangered Species Act when it failed to consult the FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The FDA is still evaluating the proposal and could reach a final decision as soon as November 23.
But the documents released this week show that FWS scientists believe that any decision on the proposal would be premature.
"The proposal also presents a situation where FDA, whose jurisdiction is not focused on natural resources, is entrusted with the authority to approve an application which poses such a threat to the country's natural resources," FWS Branch Chief Jeff Adams wrote to his colleagues on October 4.
Last month, a group of FWS scientists sent a letter to the FDA stating that the environmental assessment of the GM salmon proposal is "overly simplistic and does not adequately address the actual risk of environmental damages to wild Atlantic salmon or the ecosystem."
The scientists insist that the assessment ignores historical evidence of inland, farm-raised salmon escaping into the wild, and any interaction between wild and GM salmon must be considered a "serious threat."
Another regulatory concern is that the FDA considers the GM salmon a "new animal drug" and is reviewing the proposal to breed and sell the fish with the same process used to evaluate veterinary drugs, according to FWW CEO Wenonah Hauter.
"We think [the email cache] is a game changer because it shows that the FWS was not involved in the process," Hauter said.
AquaBounty invested $50 million in developing the salmon, and the company reported $5 million in net losses and zero profits in 2009, according to the FWW.
Hauter believes the FDA may be under political pressure to approve a GM animal food.
In addition to risks posed to wild salmon, Hauter said consumer advocates want more testing on the potential human allergies to proteins in GM salmon.