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Meet - and eat - the modified Atlantic salmon

FDA to approve Aqua Bounty's new fish tweaked with genetic material from chinook salmon and eel-like species called ocean pout

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

It looks like a normal Atlantic salmon, and the fish's creators say it tastes like one, too.

But this is no ordinary fish that Aqua Bounty Technologies has produced.

Tweaked with genetic material from chinook salmon and an eel-like creature called an ocean pout, it reaches market size twice as fast as normal Atlantic salmon, the company says. Aqua Bounty has spent more than a decade chasing U.S. regulatory approval, which Food and Drug Administration officials have reportedly said is coming "soon."

It would be a watershed moment - there are currently no genetically engineered animals approved for sale as food anywhere in the world - and opponents are predicting a wave of consumer outrage.

"We don't have that same level of negative reaction [as in Europe] at present but I suspect it will come up when food animals are approved," said Jeff Hutchings, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University and a member of the Royal Society of Canada's expert panel on biotechnology.

The Massachusetts-headquartered company, which has operations in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, has not applied for approval in Canada. But trade law could force Ottawa's hand following U.S. approval, making it irrelevant whether the Canadian consumer wants these fish or not.

Under current Canadian law, GE foods do not need to be labelled.

Ottawa is clearly aware of the sensitivity of the issue. Briefing notes prepared recently for Fisheries Minister Gail Shea acknowledge that GE fish being approved in the United States could provoke trade issues and public concerns in Canada.

The document, obtained by researcher Ken Rubin under the Access to Information Act, notes that consumers might be concerned about Ottawa's ability to keep out these fish and warns the United States would probably press Canada to speed up its own approval.

"Should U.S. companies pursue the export of GE salmon products in the future, this issue could become a trade irritant," notes the document, prepared in the past few months.

The document also insists that U.S. approval "would not imply" approval in Canada, but several observers believe a challenge under current trade laws could produce just that result.

"It's the U.S. that will be approving this product and then it's the Canadian government that will be forced to act," said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network in Ottawa. "I think that's what this company is counting on."

Lawrence Herman, senior counsel with Cassels Brock in Toronto, explains that countries have the sovereign right under international law to safeguard the lives and health of their citizens. But he adds that there's a wrinkle.

"Under the WTO agreement, the U.S. or some other country could ... argue that, not departing from our sovereign rights, a Canadian import ban was not justified on internationally-accepted scientific, health and food safety grounds," he wrote in an e-mail exchange.

It's the same argument, he added, that Ottawa is making with Japan and Korea over bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.

"If it could be shown that the U.S. law met all accepted international health and safety standards, it might call into question whether the Canadian import ban is legally necessary to protect Canadians. Under international trade law, an import ban can be struck down if there are less trade-restrictive avenues available to meet health and safety concerns."

The company stresses that its product is safe. Officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but CEO Ronald Stotish has previously said that he has tasted and enjoyed the modified fish.

Whether consumers will be as willing to eat these fish remains to be seen. The debate over GE crops was heated, but activists say the introduction of GE animals as food will be even more controversial.

The briefing note prepared for Ms. Shea acknowledged the strong feelings surrounding GE foods, including in markets now enjoyed by Canadian fish.

"If Canada were to approve GE salmon for food use at some point in the future, there could be implications for Canada's export of non-GE salmon if foreign buyers of Canadian salmon (e.g. European Union members) are not confident in Canada's ability to prove segregation and the non-GE status of Canadian fish exports."

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