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AquaBounty fined after losing track of GM salmon in Panama during barely regulated experiments

GM salmon

(NaturalNews) U.S. biotechnology company AquaBounty has been ordered to pay nearly the maximum possible fine for multiple violations of environmental law in its experimental genetically modified (GM) salmon-growing operation in Panama.

In response, the advocacy organizations Food & Water Europe, Food & Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth U.S. called on the FDA to reject AquaBounty's pending application for the commercialization of GM salmon in the United States.

"The FDA has always assured the public that it is checking, monitoring and regulating AquaBounty's production platform to ensure that the company can mitigate the well-documented environmental impacts of escaped GM salmon," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Europe.

"We now know that AquaBounty is unwilling or unable to follow basic rules and regulations, and that the FDA is unable or unwilling to enforce them. It's time to put an end to this dangerous experiment."

Latest in string of mishaps

The AquaBounty salmon are Atlantic salmon -- the species of salmon that are farmed and are thus most commonly found in stores and restaurants -- that have had genes from eelpout and Pacific Chinook salmon inserted into their DNA. The company claims that these changes cause the fish to produce abnormally high levels of growth hormone and therefore grow as much as six times faster than usual.

At the end of October, the Panamanian National Environmental Authority ruled that AquaBounty had violated a wide range of environmental safety rules, including failure to secure the proper water use and discharge permits. The violations were brought to the government's attention by national environmental group Centro de Incidencia Ambiental (Environmental Advocacy Center).

"We are of the opinion that it [AquaBounty] has repeatedly violated the aforementioned environmental regulations," Panama's National Environmental Authority said, leveling a fine of US$9,500. This is just shy of the maximum US$10,000 fine permitted by Panamanian law.

The regulatory slapdown is only the latest problem to plague AquaBounty's Panamanian operations, including the disappearance (and likely escape) of salmon during a storm, and a visiting journalist describing the facility as a "run-down shed."

Raises greater safety questions

The latest news lends credence to long-standing accusations that AquaBounty selected a remote location for its facility as a way to avoid serious scrutiny. It also supports arguments that the FDA's regulatory approval process for the GM salmon is flawed.

Under the current process, the FDA is considering only a single production scenario, as promised by AquaBounty: The company raises the salmon at a Panamanian facility, then sends fillets back to the U.S. This would be the first GM animal approved for human consumption anywhere in the world.

"One of the big reasons we are fighting the U.S. approval of GM salmon for food is the grave doubts surrounding the ability of either AquaBounty or the U.S. food system to keep these GM fish out of exports headed our way," said Eve Mitchell, EU food policy advisor for Food & Water Europe. She noted that, in contrast to European practice, GM foods are not even labeled in the United States.

AquaBounty's failure to follow Panamanian law undermines the credibility of its promises to the FDA, critics said.

"If AquaBounty doesn't even have legal permission to do what it is doing, it only adds to worries that the entire regulatory process is too full of holes to be trusted, especially on something as important as a safety assessment," Mitchell said. "We do not want GM salmon in the EU, and we don't think anyone else does either, so it's time for the FDA to reject the application and put this thing behind us."

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