After years of regulatory review and mountains of scientific data, FDA is poised to approve genetically engineered salmon. That’s the cue for activists to gin up the fear-mongering machine.

You may not have been following the controversy involving FDA approval of farm-raised salmon that have been genetically engineered to mature faster than wild salmon. It’s been an issue that’s off the radar of most of the biggest consumer protection groups.

But a little know group called Food and Water Watch has made so-called “GMO Salmon” their calling card, running endless email ads calling for a mass petition to demand that the Food and Drug Administration deny its approval to commercialization of this fish.

The transgenic fish was developed by a Massachusetts-based company called AquAdvantage, which put a gene coding for Chinook salmon growth hormone and another gene from Atlantic pout, an eel-like fish living in the North Atlantic, that concentrates the growth hormone in the GE fish.

The result is a salmon that grows faster and adds weight earlier than its native cousins, a development that would be crucial for the aquaculture industry.

But — OMG!! — it’s a GMO fish! Cue the fear-mongers who live off the public’s ignorance of biotechnology, like Food and Water Watch, to try to turn AquAdvantage’s project into fund-raising scheme, without bothering to refute the science involved.

In a commentary published in Nature American a few years ago, Alison L Van Eenennaam, PhD, a Cooperative Extension Specialist in Animal Genomics and Biotechnology at the University Of California-Davis, and William Muir, a Purdue University scientist and a specialist in genetic methods to improve adaptability, stress resistance and animal well-being, examined the AquAdvantage research.

“AquAdvantage salmon has been subjected to one of the most prolonged, if not exhaustive, regulatory assessments in history,” they wrote. “This process culminated [in 2010] with a meeting of [FDA’s] Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, as well as a public hearing, together with the release of a comprehensive health and safety briefing and an environmental assessment package on the transgenic animal developed by AquaBounty Technologies. Despite VMAC’s determination that AquAdvantage salmon is ‘as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon,’ critics continue to raise concerns relating to its allergenicity, levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 and composition of polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as the potential impacts of the fish on the environment.”

All of those are legitimate concerns, and are exactly the issues that FDA’s scientific committee has been reviewing. As Van Eenennaam and Muir explained, there is no definitive database on the natural variability of potential allergens in native, non-GE salmon, making a definitive determination of whether levels of such potential allergens in AquAdvantage fish virtually impossible to make.

As for levels of insulin-like growth factor hormone, even the New York Times agreed that “FDA concluded that even if people ate a lot of the AquAdvantage salmon, it would not make a significant difference in the amount of the IGF-1 they would consume.”

Analyses did definitively determine that the GE salmon did not have significantly lower levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, nor a less-favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids compared with non-transgenic farm-raised salmon.

The most controversial issue involves the potential of GE fish impacting populations of native fish, with critics posing a “Trojan gene effect” hypothesis, in which GE fish “contaminated” the stocks of native fish. Van Eenennaam and Muir concluded that there is minimal danger of that happening, noting that “Selection over time would be expected to simply purge the transgene from any established population, suggesting a low probability of harm.”

A low-brow appeal

Of course, Food and Water Watch doesn’t bother explaining their position on those issues. They know that most of their followers will simply salivate like Pavlov’s dogs upon reading “GMO salmon!” and react by (hopefully) sending an email to the FDA and/or (ideally) clicking the DONATE NOW button prominently displayed in its ads.

Of course, what they don’t bother telling their supporters is that a flurry of canned emails doesn’t impact scientists in making objective determinations about the safety of food and drugs. Especially when the message they provide in a pre-addressed form reads:

“Dear [FDA]:

I'm writing in support of the citizen's petition filed by Food & Water Watch (Docket #: FDA-2015-P-1094). I encourage you to ban the AquAdvantage genetically engineered salmon.”

Yeah, that’ll sway those egghead government scientists.

Even more egregious is the actual content of their email pitch. Not one, not twice not even three times but six times they badger people to respond:

  • Click here to ask the FDA to stop the approval of GMO salmon.
  • Can you stand with us in asking the FDA to reject GMO salmon?
  • Can you sign the petition to the FDA an ask them to declare GMO salmon unsafe to eat?
  • Want to keep GMO salmon off your plate? Take action by signing the citizen’s petition to the FDA.
  • You can help by adding you name to the citizens’ petition to stop GMO salmon.
  • Can you sign the petition to the FDA an ask them to declare GMO salmon unsafe to eat?

Did we mention that GMO salmon are unsafe to eat?

It’s an appeal that blatantly panders to people’s unfounded fears, and totally abdicating the responsibility of any credible group claiming legitimacy on a technical or scientific controversy.

Unfortunately, it’s a tactic that works all too well when the people on the receiving end of such messaging abdicate their responsibility to become informed on the issues. It’s a disease that infects politics as well activists, and the only cure is the patient, proactive provision of sound science, distilled in ways that consumers can easily grasp.

For the sake of all genetic research and biotech applications that enhance food productivity, those who care about animal agriculture need to play a part in that process.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator