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Safety Concerns Linger Around Genetically Modified Salmon

This just in: After 15 years of deliberation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to decide whether it will approve a genetically modified salmon for human consumption.

Now there's a catchy lead. But the truth is, the long-running regulatory saga of AquaBounty's application to sell salmon with a growth hormone gene from one fish plus a promoter of an antifreeze gene from another — which help it grow twice as fast as typical farmed salmon — does not seem headed toward a conclusion.

You might ask why. After all, according to Alison Van Eenennaam, a specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at University of California, Davis, the FDA has basically decided that there is "a reasonable certainty of no harm" from food safety and environmental perspectives. Van Eenennaam was on the FDA's panel of experts that evaluated FDA's decisions about the salmon.

But as listeners of Talk of the Nation's Science Friday learned last week, the FDA has yet to formally make those decisions about safety. Part of the reason for the delay is likely the intense opposition to the application mounted by some environmentalists and food safety groups. But even academics without an axe to grind have some questions about the safety of the new product.

Anne Kapuscinski is a professor of sustainability science and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College. She told me on Friday's show that she was not convinced that the company had adequately addressed the question of what would happen if the genetically modified fish got into waters with a population of non-engineered fish. AquaBounty argues that there are physical barriers that will prevent that from ever happening, and genetic barriers to interbreeding if it did, but Kapuscinski remains unconvinced.

One gets the sense that the ultimate decision about whether to approve the fish or not is likely to be made by a more senior part of the executive branch, possibly even the White House, itself. As last week's decision on Plan B suggested, science isn't the only consideration when making regulatory decisions.

But it's unclear whether Republicans or Democrats are more likely to favor — or oppose — a bioengineered fish on supermarket shelves.

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Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.