Judge Keeps Approval of Genetically Modified Salmon, Rules FDA Should Evaluate Effects of Possible Escape

A Northern District of California Judge ruled in an order on Thursday that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is required to study the consequences of genetically engineered salmon escape. This ruling granted part of the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, and remanded the case to the FDA, without vacatur, for them to reconsider the approval under the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. 

The FDA reportedly allowed AquaBounty’s application to produce fast-growing genetically modified salmon in fish farms in 2015. Judge Vince Chhabria did leave the approval in place, which, according to Successful Farming, is the first approval for genetically modified animals for human consumption, granting part of the defendant’s cross-motion for summary judgment. 

The order explained that the FDA determined that it was unlikely the salmon would escape from the company’s two facilities, and that if they did they would be unlikely to survive and encounter other salmon, however, they did not analyze what would happen if they did escape and survive.  It said that “even if this is unlikely, the FDA was still required to assess the consequences of it coming to pass.” 

The plaintiffs, which include various fishing and environmental organizations, filed the lawsuit asking the court to vacate the approval of the genetically modified fish. They argued that the salmon operations would likely grow and use additional facilities, increasing the risk of the salmon escaping. The FDA reportedly did give the company permission for a third facility, relying on the analysis it did for the other two facilities. 

George Kimbrell, counsel with the Center for Food Safety, said in a press release, “today’s decision is a vital victory for endangered salmon and our oceans … Genetically engineered animals create novel risks and regulators must rigorously analyze them using sound science, not stick their head in the sand as officials did here. In reality, this engineered fish offers nothing but unstudied risks. The absolute last thing our planet needs right now is another human-created crisis like escaped genetically engineered fish running amok.”

Kimbrell further said that the Center for Food Safety is going to consider options for appeal, saying the approval of genetically modified salmon is illegal because the FDA did not take into account the effect on native salmon if they were to interact with genetically modified salmon. The press release said studies have shown genetically engineered organisms have a high risk of escaping into their natural environments.