US environmental groups sue to overturn approval of Singapore-created GMO salmon approval

After 20 years of deliberation dogged by controversy, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the world’s first genetically engineered animal to reach dinner plates.
After 20 years of deliberation dogged by controversy, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the world’s first genetically engineered animal to reach dinner plates.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

CHICAGO (REUTERS) - US health regulators are facing a lawsuit from a coalition of environmental organisations seeking to overturn the government's landmark approval of a type of genetically engineered salmon to be farmed for human consumption.

The Centre for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth and other groups allege in the lawsuit, filed on Wednesday (March 30), that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failed to consider all of the environmental risks of the fish, made by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies.

Government officials also cleared the product without having the proper authority to regulate genetically engineered animals produced for food, according to the complaint.

The FDA approved the salmon in November after a 20-year review in the first such approval for an animal whose DNA has been scientifically modified. An agency policy analyst said at the time that officials had wanted "to get everything right" and offer many opportunities for public comment because the approval was the first of its kind.

The genetically modified (GM) salmon was created in 1992 by Emeritus Professor Hew Choy Leong from the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore.

The 73-year-old will not get any royalties from his creation as the patent expired five years ago. But he told The Straits Times in an interview that he was happy to be recognised for his work.

AquaBounty Technologies, where Prof Hew was chief scientist before he left in 1999, first applied to the US agency for approval in 1995. The fast-growing Atlantic salmon can grow to a marketable size in about half the time compared with an ordinary salmon. So instead of taking three years to reach the market weight of 4kg to 5kg, the transgenic salmon requires 18 months.

However, the lawsuit alleged that the FDA approval process included "an extremely limited environmental assessment" that did not fully evaluate the potential for AquaBounty salmon to escape from the facilities where they are grown, among other risks.

The legal challenge comes as the US food industry is facing increased pressure from consumers to provide more information about the use of genetically engineered ingredients.

General Mills and other major food companies are rolling out new disclosures on products to comply with a Vermont law that will require labels on foods made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Environmental activists worry the government's approval of AquaBounty salmon will serve as a precedent for other genetically engineered food animals.

Their lawsuit seeks to prohibit the FDA from taking further action on the fish or any other genetically engineered animal for human consumption until Congress grants an agency clear authority over such products.

The Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice are legal counsel in the case, jointly representing the coalition of organisations.

They sued the FDA and its commissioner, along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services.