A broad coalition of environmental, consumer, and commercial and recreational fishing organizations today sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approving the first-ever genetically engineered (GE) food animal, an Atlantic salmon engineered to grow quickly. The man-made salmon was created by AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. with DNA from three fish: Atlantic salmon, Pacific king salmon, and Arctic ocean eelpout. This marks the first time any government in the world has approved a GE animal for commercial sale and consumption.
The plaintiff coalition, jointly represented by legal counsel from Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, includes Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Golden Gate Salmon Association, Kennebec Reborn, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, Ecology Action Centre, Food & Water Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Cascadia Wildlands, and Center for Food Safety.
In approving the GE salmon, FDA determined it would not require labeling of the GE fish to let consumers know what they are buying, which led Congress to call for labeling in the 2016 omnibus spending bill. FDA’s approval also ignored comments from nearly 2 million people opposed to the approval because the agency failed to analyze and prevent the risks to wild salmon and the environment, as well as fishing communities, including the risk that GE salmon could escape and threaten endangered wild salmon stocks.
The lawsuit challenges FDA’s claim that it has authority to approve and regulate GE animals as “animal drugs” under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Those provisions were meant to ensure the safety of veterinary drugs administered to treat disease in livestock and were not intended to address entirely new GE animals that can pass along their altered genes to the next generation. The approval of the GE salmon opens the door to other genetically engineered fish and shellfish, as well as chickens, cows, sheep, goats, rabbits and pigs that are reportedly in development.
The lawsuit also highlights FDA’s failure to protect the environment and consult wildlife agencies in its review process, as required by federal law. U.S. Atlantic salmon, and many populations of Pacific salmon, are protected by the Endangered Species Act and in danger of extinction. Salmon is a keystone species and unique runs have been treasured by residents for thousands of years. Diverse salmon runs today sustain thousands of American fishing families, and are highly valued in domestic markets as a healthy, domestic, “green” food.
John McManus, the Golden Gate Salmon Association’s executive director, make this very legitimate argument on the concerns that wild salmon advocates have against farmed or genetically created alternatives.
“There’s never been a farmed salmon that hasn’t eventually escaped into the natural environment. Why should we believe that long term, these frankenfish won’t be the same?”
Here are a couple other statements from the plaintiff conglomerate in this suit, courtesy of Golden Gate Salmon:
“FDA’s decision is as unlawful as it is irresponsible,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety and co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “This case is about protecting our fisheries and ocean ecosystems from the foreseeable harms of the first-ever GE fish, harms FDA refused to even consider, let alone prevent. But it’s also about the future of our food: FDA should not, and cannot, responsibly regulate this GE animal, nor any future GE animals, by treating them as drugs under a 1938 law.”
“FDA has not answered crucial questions about the environmental risks posed by these fish or what can happen when these fish escape,” said Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy and co-counsel for plaintiffs. “We need these answers now and the FDA must be held to a higher standard. We are talking about the mass production of a highly migratory GE fish that could threaten some of the last remaining wild salmon on the planet. This isn’t the time to skimp on analysis and simply hope for the best.”
“Atlantic salmon populations including our endangered Gulf of Maine fish are hanging on by a thread– they can’t afford additional threats posed by GE salmon,” said Ed Friedman from Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, one of the parties who successfully petitioned to classify most Maine Atlantic salmon as endangered. “The law requires agencies like FDA, who aren’t fisheries biologists, to get review and approval from scientists with that expertise. FDA’s refusal to do this before allowing commercialization of GE salmon is not only irresponsible, it violates the law.”