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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Genetically Engineered Fish and Seafood: Environmental Concerns

Eugene H. Buck
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Genetic engineering techniques allow the manipulation of inherited traits to modify and improve organisms. Several genetically modified (GM) fish and seafood products are currently under development and offer potential benefits such as increasing aquaculture productivity and improving human health. However, some are concerned that, in this rapidly evolving field, current technological and regulatory safeguards are inadequate to protect the environment and ensure public acceptance that these products are safe for consumption. (The safety of GM foods is not addressed in this report.)

In the early 2000s, several efforts began to develop GM fish and seafood products, with a GM AquAdvantage salmon developed by AquaBounty, Inc., in the forefront of efforts to produce a new product for human consumption. By September 2010, requested data had been provided to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by AquaBounty, and FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee held public hearings on the approval of AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption. The public comment period on FDA approval is open through November 22, 2010, and FDA action on approval is not anticipated before early 2011. If approved, AquAdvantage salmon would be the first GM animal approved for human consumption.

Environmental concerns related to the development of GM fish include the potential for detrimental competition with wild fish, and possible interbreeding with wild fish so as to allow the modified genetic material to escape into the wild fish population. Sterilization and bioconfinement have been proposed as means of isolating GM fish to minimize harm to wild fish populations. To address these concerns, AquaBounty has proposed producing salmon eggs (all sterile females) in Canada, shipping these eggs to Panama, growing and processing fish in Panama, and shipping table-ready, processed fish to the United States for retail sale.

In the process of congressional oversight of executive agency regulatory action, concerns have been raised about the adequacy of the FDA’s review of the AquAdvantage salmon. In response to these concerns, several bills were introduced in the 111
th Congress seeking to declare GM fish unsafe and thus prevent FDA approval of the AquAdvantage salmon (H.R. 6265) or to require that GM fish be specifically labeled as such (H.R. 6264 and § 301 of H.R. 6325). No action has been taken on these bills in the 111th Congress, and this issue could be of continued concern early in the 112th Congress.

Date of Report: November 10, 2010
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: R41486
Price: $29.95

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