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Will FDA Approve Genetically Modified Salmon?

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The Food and Drug Administration could approve genetically modified salmon for human consumption. Anne Kapuscinski, professor of Sustainability Science at Dartmouth College, offers her insight.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Will the Food and Drug Administration approve the first genetically modified animal for human consumption? The animal is a genetically engineered salmon that grows to market size twice as fast as conventional salmon. And the FDA will be holding public meetings about that fish starting on September 19th.

The company behind the salmon, AquaBounty Technologies, got a thumbs-up last week from a panel of FDA scientists. They concluded there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from this animal.

So what should we know about this fish and its future? Professor Anne Kapuscinski is a fisheries biologist at Dartmouth College. She has studied both endangered salmon and genetically modified fish. Welcome to the program.

Professor ANNE KAPUSCINSKI (Professor of Sustainability Science, Dartmouth College): Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And why don't you explain first how this salmon has been genetically modified to grow faster?

Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: The company that's developed these fish has inserted two genes. One gene is for growth hormone, and it's almost identical to the growth hormone gene that's already in these salmon.

And then the other gene acts like a little switch. It's a piece of DNA that comes from another fish, from the ocean pout, and it's normally connected to the gene that produces antifreeze protein in that fish.

In the case of these salmon, they've just taken the part of the DNA that acts like a switch, and that switch turns on the gene that produces the growth hormone so that the salmon will produce growth hormone in its tissues throughout the year, whereas a conventional salmon only produces growth hormone during the warmer times of the year, when the water temperatures are warmer.

BLOCK: So they end up growing to market size in - what, 18 months instead of three years.

Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: I think that's about right. It's about half the time.

BLOCK: When the FDA studies this genetically modified salmon to see whether it's safe to eat, what are they looking at? How do they make that decision?

Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: The FDA asked the company to present data on several issues. First of all, is the inserted gene safe for the health of the animal? Is the inserted gene and the growth hormone it's producing safe for humans to eat the fish? And third, will the farming of these fish have any effects on the environment?

They are not required to conclude that they're environmentally safe, and that's the only condition under which to approve them. That law just requires an environmental assessment, basically figuring out what would be the effect on the quality of the human environment.

BLOCK: And you're saying they're asking the company for that data. This is information coming directly from the company that's producing the fish?

Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: Yes. It's the applicant, or the company, that's responsible for producing the data. That's the way it works under the drug law that is being used to regulate genetically modified animals, including these fish.

So the company runs whatever tests they think are appropriate. That's done in consultation with the FDA. They produce the data, and then report that data to the FDA. The FDA has its own staff of scientists that then evaluate the data.

BLOCK: And as a scientist yourself who studies these organisms, how do you feel about that system and the transparency of that?

Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: I would like to see a much more transparent system. It's fine for the company to do the test. One could argue that you should place the burden on them because they're the ones who might profit. They, therefore, should be the ones who would spend the money to do the tests. But it would be much better if the data were all publicly available, and available for independent scientists to evaluate it.

BLOCK: Let's say the salmon is approved and does reach market. What about labeling? Would a consumer know that this is a genetically modified fish?

Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: Well, the FDA has to make a separate decision about whether or not to require labeling of these fish. I don't know yet exactly what decision the FDA will make, since I'm not the FDA.

But in reading between the lines and the documents they released this past Friday, I have the impression that they hope to conclude that they don't need to require labeling of the fish because the flesh of these genetically engineered salmon, I think they're going to argue, is substantially equivalent to the flesh of conventional salmon.

So if they don't require labeling, consumers would only know if the company decides, on its own, to voluntarily label the fish.

BLOCK: Well, Professor Kapuscinski, thanks for talking with us.

Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: Thank you very much for having me.

BLOCK: That's Anne Kapuscinski, professor of sustainability science at Dartmouth College. She was talking with us about the possibility that the FDA will approve the first genetically modified animal for human consumption, a salmon.

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