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GMO salmon's future in question after producer fined over violations

GMO salmon's future in question after producer fined over violations
Panama fined a US biotechnology company’s local facility that “repeatedly violated” the nation’s permitting and regulatory laws as it worked to develop the world’s first genetically-modified salmon. The 2012 infractions were first made public on Tuesday.

AquaBounty Technologies, a company licensed by the US government to foster what could be the world’s first genetically-modified (GM) meat, is carrying out GM-salmon research in Panama. Neither Panama nor the US has given clearance to sell GM salmon, but, if regulators approve its application, AquaBounty may become the first to sell GM meat in the US.

“AquaBounty is really out front on this – the current case will set an important precedent,” Dana Perls, a food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.

“From what we know, there are about 35 other genetically modified species in the development pipelines in other companies. So depending on what happens in this case, we’ll likely either see a flow of other permits or this will demonstrate that there isn’t room on the market for GM meat or seafood.”

The company’s breeding facility in Panama, however, has come under scrutiny from local regulators, IPS reported, casting doubt on GMO meat’s future in the US.

A 2012 investigation of AquaBounty’s Panama facilities found that the company, in working to develop GM salmon, did not attain required permits for water use and pollution of the surrounding environment, which is important based on the possible ramifications of GM species invading natural ecosystems.

The company “repeatedly violated” Panamanian regulations, authorities said, and problematic practices continued into 2013. The violations yielded the maximum fine allowed against AquaBounty.

The decision to fine AquaBounty was made in July 2014 and was first announced to the public on Tuesday, IPS reported.

AquaBounty insisted that the violations were mainly administrative and that all problems have been corrected by now.

“It is important to emphasize that none of the issues in the Resolution questioned the containment, health of the fish, or the environmental safety of the facility,” the company said in a statement to IPS.

“When AquaBounty was informed of issues at our Panama facility, we immediately contacted Anam, the Panamanian agency for the environment. We initiated a program to remedy the deficiencies and the issues were formally resolved in August of 2014.”

AquaBounty added that its Panama facility “continues to operate with no sanctions or restrictions.”

It is yet unclear how these infractions will affect AquaBounty’s application with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A spokesperson for the agency noted that the violations occurred in 2012, and that the FDA would “consider all relevant information as part of the decision-making process.”

Without offering an estimated conclusion date, the spokesperson said the FDA is in the process of reviewing AquaBounty’s application.

The regulatory infractions stoked frustration and concern among groups dissatisfied with the FDA’s regulatory structures.

“This decision is also even further proof that FDA is dangerously out of touch with the facts on the ground, advancing AquaBounty’s application based on its promises, not reality,” George Kimbrell, a senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, told IPS.

The FDA’s review of GM salmon is based solely on AquaBounty’s development in Panama, according to Perls.

“The FDA is going forward with its review based on the premise that this facility will be in compliance with regulations, yet now we’re seeing it’s not,” she said.

“It is increasingly clear that there is inadequate regulation: the FDA is trying to shoehorn this new genetically engineered animal into a completely ill-fitting regulatory process.”

Many environmentalists are concerned about the introduction of GM species into the wild, where the genetically-engineered crop could dominate the natural population or usher in new diseases. Anti-GMO and consumer advocates are worried that regulators are moving too fast, echoing the GMO-labeling debate in the US.

There is currently no GMO-labeling requirement in the US, though major biotech and food manufacturing groups are working feverishly to stem the tide of state-based labeling laws, such as the one passed but still pending in Vermont.

A poll conducted by the New York Times last year found that 93 percent of respondents want GMO ingredients to be properly labeled. Seventy-five percent of respondents also said they would not eat genetically-engineered fish.

Meanwhile, around 60 major US retailers, according to Friends of the Earth, have said they will not carry genetically-engineered salmon if and when approved. That list includes Safeway, the second-largest US grocer, which said in February that “should [genetically-engineered] salmon come to market, we are not considering nor do we have any plans to carry GE salmon."