Politicians struggle to put brakes on genetically-altered fish

A U.S. Senate bill, which would have prohibited the sale of genetically engineered salmon unless the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could find the fish would cause no significant environmental harm, was withdrawn from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee late last week.

It's just one of many such bills proposed in the last two years that haven't gotten any traction.

A bill advanced in the California Assembly, requiring the labeling of all genetically engineered fish sold in the state, was struck down in January by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

A U.S. Senate amendment that would have required rigorous environmental testing of the salmon failed in May on a 46-50 vote.

In this latest case, "we withdrew it because we knew it wasn't going to pass," said Julie Hasquet, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who sponsored the bill.

"But he's never going to stop trying to prohibit the sale and production of these fish," Hasquet said. "He'll be coming back at it."

Some politicians and environmentalists worry that there is too little known about the health and environmental impacts of these animals to allow full-scale production. Several studies have found reasons for concern, including one in July 2011 that showed engineered salmon could breed with wild salmon – despite biotechnology company AquaBounty Technologies' claim that they can't.

Environmentalists worry that if the engineered salmon were to somehow get loose and breed with wild salmon, they'd threaten natural salmon populations.

Calls and emails to AquaBounty, based in Massachusetts, were not returned.

The Food and Drug Administration is considering approval of the AquaBounty fish, which is an Atlantic salmon with genes from other fish. It contains a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a genetic "on switch" from a fish known as the ocean pout.

The added genes will allow the salmon to continue growing during the winter, a time when the fish usually do not grow. The result: a salmon that can grow to market size in 16 to 18 months, less than half the time it takes normal hatchery-reared salmon.

"The company still says they expect approval soon," Charles Margulis, spokesman for the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health, wrote in an email. "And the FDA is pretty much mum on the subject."

FDA spokesman Curtis Allen said, "I don't have any information on a time frame." 

Californians will have an opportunity in November to vote on a ballot measure that would require labeling of all genetically engineered or modified foods.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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