Yes, Virginia, There is a Frankenfish
Oblivious to his unusual appearance and his disagreeable body odor, little Ginny eagerly accepted a big lollipop from the eccentric stranger who lives across the street next door to the AquaWhopper genetic engineering labs.
In recent months there, has been much controversy surrounding the FDA’s proposed approval of the sale of genetically engineered fish for general public consumption. The technology is being promoted on the grounds that the modified fish are nutritionally indistinguishable from wild species or conventionally farmed fish. Industry officials further assert that the fish are completely safe to eat and do not pose any threat to the environment, as almost all engineered fish are female and reproductively sterile. Even in the event that a few might escape from the farms, these captive populations are said to be incapable of interbreeding with other fish in the wild and therefore do not pose a threat to the natural biodiversity of indigenous populations. The industry also suggests that an ample supply of high quality farmed fish will reduce pressure on native species caused by overfishing.
Critics disagree with these positions. For one, escaped fast-growing transgenic fish with voracious appetites might compete for food and habitat with native populations, to the detriment of the latter. Furthermore, environmental concerns aside, detractors are concerned that the FDA’s proposed approval does not presently contain any provision for labeling genetically modified fish as such. Therefore, a consumer would have no way to distinguish genetically modified fish from wild caught fish in the supermarket. The growth hormones used to produce hybridized fish, although ostensibly natural, could have unforeseen consequences with human immune systems that could be triggered by alteration of intestinal flora caused by ingesting bacteria associated with the modified fish. A study conducted in the UK in 2004 explored the possibility of the horizontal transfer of transgenes from modified foods to human intestinal microflora. While the study found evidence of the survival of some genetically modified DNA through the upper GI tract, it failed to demonstrate that the complete transgene had been transferred to host bacteria. Nevertheless, the study recommended that this phenomenon be considered at the time when the safety of genetically modified foods is evaluated for wholesale human consumption.
In a move that would appear to stifle transparency, the FDA is proposing to regulate genetically modified fish as “animal drugs” in order to protect the producers’ proprietary processes and trade secrets. The approval process relies extensively on the producer’s own testing and data, which suggests a conflict of interest whereby data could have been skewed and negative findings suppressed.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) recently announced that he was making it a legislative priority for 2011 to defeat the FDA’s proposed approval of genetically modified salmon, or at least to force disclosure on the packaging. This is considered by many to be a fundamental requirement that would protect persons who may allergic to the modified fish. Furthermore, it has been disclosed that modified fish are relatively low in omega-3 content when compared to wild salmon and have also been found to contain considerably larger concentrations of IGF1, which is a hormone associated with various human cancers. Information regarding these risks needs to be made available to the public so that they can make informed purchasing decisions.