Judge orders FDA to study dangers of wild release of genetically engineered salmon

A genetically modified salmon dwarfs a non-modified salmon of the same age in an undated handout photo distributed in 2010. (Photo via AquaBounty Technologies)

A federal judge in San Francisco has ordered federal regulators to re-evaluate the safety of genetically modified salmon. But the court is still allowing thousands of engineered fish raised in tanks in the Midwest to reach American consumers by the end of the year.

The Food and Drug Administration in 2019 approved the farming and growing in land-based pens of an engineered fish that splices genes from Atlantic salmon, Pacific Chinook and an eel-like species called ocean pout.

Marketed as AquAdvantage Salmon, it’s designed to grow about twice as fast as regular farmed salmon.

Environmental lawyers say scientists have urged the FDA to fully consider the ecological risks that could occur if a man-made salmon species became established in the wild.

That is not what the FDA did,” Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda told CoastAlaska. “The FDA decided that it would stop its analysis at the assumption that the fish would never get out.”

And that’s where the federal agency erred, U.S. District Court of Northern California Judge Vince Chhabria ruled Thursday in his 16-page decision.

“Obviously, as the company’s operations grow, so too does the risk of engineered salmon escaping,” the judge wrote.

He ordered the FDA to study the issue further and consult with other federal resource agencies over potential risks to wild salmon.

Sending FDA back to the drawing board to take a look at all of the effects of genetically engineered salmon is step one,” Mashuda said by phone from Seattle. “We think when FDA does that, and if they do that in consultation with the expert biologists and listen to outside scientists, they’re going to have to do far more to ensure that these fish are environmentally safe, before they can be continued to be approved.”

AquaBounty Technologies recently announced plans for a Kentucky facility it says would be eight times larger than its existing plant in Indiana.

But Judge Chhabria’s decision effectively blocks AquAdvantage fish from being grown or harvested anywhere but existing facilities until the FDA complies with the court’s ruling.

AquaBounty Technologies President and CEO Sylvia Wulf released a statement on Thursday saying the company is “disappointed” by the ruling. But she says it won’t impact operations at its Canadian egg-growing facility on Prince Edward Island or its Indiana fish farm.

Wild salmon is one of Alaska’s top exports. The engineered Atlantic salmon product has been viewed as a threat, to both the worldwide salmon market and the environment.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute isn’t sounding the alarm over any competitive threat from genetically modified fish. ASMI Executive Director Jeremy Woodrow said by email that consumers are more savvy about the origin of their food.

“Clear labeling and transparency in our food systems is becoming more important every day,” Woodrow’s statement said. “This is just one reason why customers worldwide trust wild, sustainable and natural Alaska seafood.”

The company confirmed the first AquaAdvantage fish grown in Indiana is still slated to hit the U.S. market by the end of the year.

“AquaBounty is excited about the future, and takes seriously the unwavering leadership that is required to offer a safe, secure and sustainable source of Atlantic Salmon that is raised right here in the U.S. heartland for U.S consumers,” Wulf’s statement added.