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FDA OK’s genetically modified salmon

The genetically engineered fish, named the AquAdvantage salmon, is produced by AquaBounty, a Maynard company.
The genetically engineered fish, named the AquAdvantage salmon, is produced by AquaBounty, a Maynard company.(AquaBounty Technologies)

For the first time, Americans will be able to dine on a genetically altered animal, after federal regulators on Thursday approved a Massachusetts biotechnology company’s bid to modify salmon for human consumption.

After years of testing the company’s modified fish, regulators said there are no “biologically relevant differences” between the so-called AquAdvantage salmon and other farm-raised Atlantic salmon. Still, for the time being the FDA has barred the fish from being cultivated in the United States and has issued strict regulations to prevent the modified salmon from breeding with those in the wild.

The decision was a big win for AquaBounty, which began seeking approval in the 1990s for its technique of inserting growth hormone genes from Chinook salmon and an eel-like creature called ocean pout into the DNA of Atlantic salmon. The faster the fish grow, the more the company can produce and sell, potentially reducing overfishing of the oceans and developing a new source of food for a growing global population.

Company officials said the federal approval would create a new industry in the United States, which they say imports 95 percent of its Atlantic salmon. But it was unclear how long it might take before the fish appear in supermarkets.

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“AquAdvantage salmon is a game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner, without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats,” Ronald L. Stotish, the chief executive of AquaBounty, said in a statement.

Environmental and consumer advocates have long raised concerns about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, saying they could cause health and environmental problems.

Some of the critics insisted that regulators failed to do sufficient safety testing before approving the salmon as fit to eat.

“The FDA is supposed to protect public safety, yet the agency’s environmental review was done in the form of an environmental assessment, instead of a more thorough environmental impact statement that would fully consider the threat this controversial new fish could pose to wild fish populations and ecosystems,” said Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group.

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Others criticized the agency for not requiring the fish to be labeled as genetically modified. The FDA instead encouraged the company to voluntarily label the food as altered.

“Consumers deserve transparency around something as fundamental as the food they eat and feed their families,” said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, a statewide advocacy group. “It is unconscionable that AquaBounty is not required to label their genetically engineered salmon.”

Agency officials said their environmental assessment found that the altered salmon “would not have a significant environmental impact, because of the multiple and redundant measures being taken to contain the fish and prevent their escape.”

The agency’s approval, however, still bars the company from raising the fish in the United States. The company will be allowed to raise the salmon only in specially designed land-based tanks in Canada and Panama.

The FDA also requires that the company’s hatcheries maintain “multiple and redundant levels of physical barriers” to prevent eggs and fish from escaping from the tanks. The agency also will require the fish to be sterilized, so that in the event they do escape, they wouldn’t be able to breed with fish in the wild.

Regulators from the FDA and the Canadian and Panamanian governments will monitor the company’s hatcheries and conduct regular inspections, agency officials said.

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The FDA approval could boost efforts to create other genetically altered animals.

Scientists are increasingly using new tools, including those known as CRISPRs, to alter animal genomes by editing them to include or exclude beneficial or harmful traits. Scottish researchers, for example, have used the technique to breed pigs that have immunity to African swine fever.

Supporters of the technique noted that the gene-modified salmon aren’t introducing anything new or artificial to the fish. They’re just changing the sequence of their DNA.

The results of enabling salmon to grow more quickly, they said, could mean less need to fish depleted wild salmon stocks.

“This product is another example of how sustainability is driving technological innovation,” said Fred Ledley, a professor of natural and applied sciences at Bentley University and the founder of its Center for Integration of Science and Industry.

Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, which represents the seafood industry, said he isn’t concerned about the sale of genetically modified fish. He noted that only about 8 percent of fish sold in the United States are caught in domestic waters.

He said it was more important for the farm-raised fish to be fed a marine diet, rather than something like soybeans. Otherwise the fish would lack the same nutritional benefits.

“I personally think the outrage of genetic modifications is driven by people who don’t understand biology,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with advances of technology.”

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On its website, the company says its technique will ultimately help feed the world’s growing population, even as overfishing becomes more of a problem across the planet.

“AquAdvantage Salmon will help address the need for healthy protein by producing more fish in less time,” they wrote.

Outside of the Legal Harborside restaurant in the Seaport District on Thursday, a number of people said they were open to the concept.

Liz Hamilton, 24, a Tufts University medical student from Boston, supports the genetically modified fish.

“It’s funny,” she said. “I wrote a paper on it a few years ago. We’ve been genetically modifying food forever. I see no difference — genetically, molecularly — it’s all the same.”

Barry Canton, 35, of Boston, and Narendra Maheshri, 37, of Cambridge, expressed a similar view. Both work in genetic engineering, though not with food.

“I’m pretty comfortable about it,” Canton said. “There’s nothing unnatural in there. No scary chemicals.”

“I agree,” Maheshri added, explaining that the breeding is natural. “It’s just doing it in a faster way. The end product is identical.”


Globe correspondent Alexandra Koktsidis contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.