In documents released ahead of the hearing, the FDA said there were no biologically relevant differences between the engineered salmon and conventional salmon, and there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from its consumption. FDA scientists said Monday there are very few differences between the modified and conventional fish.
Critics have two main concerns: The safety of the food to humans and the salmon's effect on the environment.
Because the altered fish has never been eaten before, they say, it could include dangerous allergens, especially because seafood is highly allergenic. They also worry that the fish will escape and intermingle with the wild salmon population, which is already endangered.They would grow fast and consume more food to the detriment of the conventional wild salmon, the critics fear.
The FDA tried to allay both of those concerns Monday, saying the fish shouldn't cause any allergies not already found in conventional salmon and that there is little chance they could escape. But the advisory panel, which was formed to give input to the agency and did not hold a final vote, cast some doubts on whether there was enough evidence to say those things for sure.
Critics speaking at the meeting said they were concerned about the unintended consequences of approval, arguing the FDA is relying on too little data.
Wenonah Hauter, director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said the FDA process is inadequate because it allows the company to keep some proprietary information private. Modified foods are regulated under the same process used for animal drugs.
"With all due respect, we don't believe a veterinary advisory committee is the appropriate place to discuss these food safety issues," Hauter told the panel.
AquaBounty CEO Stotish countered his product has come under more scrutiny than most food.
"This is perhaps the most studied fish in history," he said. "Environmentally this is a very sustainable technology."
The company has several safeguards in place to quell concerns. The fish would be bred female and sterile, though a small percentage might be able to breed. They would be bred in confined pools where the potential for escape would be low.
In its environmental analysis of the fish released earlier this month, the FDA agreed with the company that there are enough safeguards in place.
Stotish says the fish would be bred in better conditions than many of the world's farmed salmon and could be located closer to towns and cities to help feed more people. The company has also said the increase in engineered salmon production could help relieve endangered wild salmon populations.
The company is arguing that the fish do not need to be labeled as genetically engineered. Stotish said, "The label could even be misleading because it implies a difference that doesn't exist."