The genetically modified salmon has been the subject of intense debate since it was first approved by the FDA, without long-term human safety testing as is the case with virtually all GMO foods, in 2015.
The organization behind it, a Canadian biotech company named AquaBounty, cheerfully announced the news, and later went on to create a production facility in Indiana, with designs on making the controversial, completely unlabeled product a fixture on the American dinner plate.
In April of this year, the novel, lab-created, genetically engineered fish was approved for its application as an “animal drug” by the FDA, adding to the anticipation that it would reach U.S. dinner plates soon.
But now, a San Francisco-based federal judge appears poised to rule in favor of environmental groups, potentially scoring a huge, much-needed victory for the GMO-free movement.
Federal Judge Scolds DOJ Attorney Over Hasty Approval of GMO Salmon
According to a report from the Courthouse News Service, U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria said he’s concerned that the Canadian company may use the FDA’s finding of “no significant impact” to expand its GMO salmon program — before realizing the potential harm it could do to the environment, as well as wild fish in general.
Much like with GMO food crops upon their release in the mid-1990s, the GMO salmon could have serious, unintended long-term consequences on human health and the environment, activists say.
The company has promised to keep its “frankensalmon” from escaping into the wild.
But activists and concerned citizens, including Judge Chhabria, are not sure that’s even possible.
The judge fired back at the FDA, saying that such an approval lead to even more GMO animals reaching the market at record speed.
“I’m not saying it opens the floodgates or sets the standards, but perhaps it pushes us in a direction and future agency action will likely be informed by this agency action,” he said.
“Shouldn’t the FDA in this case have considered the fact that this was the first such facility and future decisions would be building on this facility?”
The company’s original application in 2015 was hit with a lawsuit from the anti-GMO group Center for Food Safety, along with several environmental organizations and trade groups representing the fishing industry.
But if Chhabria rules against them, their ambitious plans will hit an unexpected roadblock — one that could spell an end to one of the biggest and most controversial GMO experiments in history.
Environmental Group Warns: Wild Salmon At Risk if GMO Salmon is Approved
While the company continues to insist its salmon will be kept under wraps, Chhabria wondered whether the FDA’s environmental assessment could lead to the future approval of more AquaBounty facilities in the future.
Marissa Piropato, a justice department attorney representing the FDA, said that there is “no guarantee the FDA is going to accept whatever comes down the pike.”
But activists and environmental groups remain wary, especially considering the countless rubber-stamp approvals of potentially harmful GMO foods that have been passed down in recent years.
“You seem to be saying we should be sticking our heads in the sand because there are no concrete plans to build more facilities,” Chhabria said in response to Piropato, adding that the FDA’s environmental assessment “is going to be their starting point for looking to regulatory approval for future actions.”
Lawyers from the environmental groups remain skeptical that products like the GMO salmon will ever be fairly regulated, and called for Chhabria to cancel the FDA’s “outdated” 2015 assessment while forcing them to perform a new one.
“Whatever they do here is going to inform the approval for those other applications and is going to inform what the FDA does for all GE animals going forward,” Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy said in a phone call to Courthouse News Service.
The judge said he was inclined to reject the assessment and order the FDA to take a closer look at the project’s potential hazards, although he made no formal ruling.
FDA Argues GMO Salmon is a “Drug” In Attempt to Get Off the Hook
Chhabria was also given new information to consider from DOJ attorney Mary Engelhart: that the GMO salmon may actually not be subject to the court’s authority because it actually qualifies as an “animal drug,” meaning that environmental impact assessments may not be necessary at all.
But Judge Chhabria fired back yet again, saying that the GMO Atlantic salmon is unmistakably an animal and calling into question why it would ever be considered a drug.
He wondered aloud about the effect the monstrous salmon, which is said to grow twice as fast as natural salmon, could have on animals in the wild.
“Killing trees is one thing, killing salmon is another,” he said.
“Even if you’re right about environmental effects generally, it doesn’t follow for me that you also cannot consider or act upon the risk that the salmon would be killed.”