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FDA: Altered salmon safe to eat

– Salmon that have been genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as their natural counterparts inched a little closer toward the nation’s dinner tables.

The Food and Drug Administration released its findings Friday that the fish do not pose a threat to the environment and are “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.”

That removed a key hurdle for a Massachusetts company seeking to market the modified salmon, which critics derisively have dubbed “Frankenfish.”

But the move also reignited a long-running debate over whether a nation that already grows and consumes genetically modified plants such as corn and soybeans is prepared to make a similar leap when it comes to animals.

AquAdvantage, the fast-growing fish at the center of the controversy in the United States, is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and has been given a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The result is a fish that grows larger and faster than traditional salmon.

Under the company’s proposal, no modified salmon would be produced in America. The eggs would be produced on Prince Edward Island in Canada and shipped to another facility in Panama, where they would be harvested and processed. In its assessment, the FDA said the likelihood that the altered fish could escape containment and reproduce in the wild is “extremely remote.”

The FDA must take comments from the public on its report for 60 days before finalizing approval of the fish.

“You keep those damn fish out of my waters. It will ruin what I think is one of the finest products in the world,” Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in an interview, saying he fears that the spread of fish farms could contaminate the wild salmon industry in Alaska.

The nonprofit Center for Food Safety also sharply criticized the FDA’s assessment, calling the decision “premature and misguided.”

Meanwhile, industry executives and some agency scientists insist that there is no discernible difference between the altered salmon and wild salmon. Ronald Stotish, president of AquaBounty Technologies, has argued that his salmon would help bolster the world’s food supply, lower prices and require fewer resources – all in a safe and sustainable way.

AquaBounty first applied for permission to sell its genetically altered fish in 1995, and even by FDA standards, its application has moved at a glacial pace in recent years.

Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said even if AquaBounty wins approval for its genetically modified fish, its limited production capacity means that it would make up only a tiny fraction of the U.S. market.

“This is not going to become the majority of our salmon overnight,” Jaffe said. “It won’t be as hard as winning the lottery, but it will be hard to find a modified salmon steak.”