Engineered animals closer to dinner plate

Super Chicken strutted a step closer to the dinner table Thursday.

The government said it will start considering proposals to sell genetically engineered animals as food, a move that could lead to faster-growing fish, cattle that can resist mad cow disease or perhaps heart-healthier eggs laid by a new breed of chickens.

The rules will also apply to drugs and other medical materials from genetically engineered animals, a field with explosive potential.

U.S. supermarkets currently sell no meat from genetically engineered animals. But a Boston-area company called Aqua Bounty Technologies hopes to win approval next year for its faster-growing salmon and make the fish available by 2011. “It tastes just like any other farm-raised salmon,” said vice chairman Elliot Entis, who has sampled it.

Reaction from consumer groups was mixed. They welcomed the government's decision to regulate genetically altered animals, but they cautioned that crucial details remain to be spelled out. For example, the Food and Drug Administration does not plan to require that all genetically engineered meat, poultry and fish be labeled as such. It would be labeled only if there was a change in the final product, such as low-cholesterol filet mignon.

“They are talking about pigs that are going to have mouse genes in them, and this is not going to be labeled?” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. “We are close to speechless on this.”

Nonetheless, Gregory Jaffe, who heads the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest called the FDA's move a “good first step.”

“This is the first time the federal government is announcing a comprehensive regulatory system that addresses the concerns from these animals,” said Jaffe. “But it may not have addressed all the environmental concerns.”

What would happen if a genetically engineered animal escaped and started reproducing with wild animals of the same species? Jaffe asked. The FDA said it would address that issue.

On Thursday, the FDA released a proposed legal framework for how it would resolve such questions as whether the altered animals are safe for human consumption and whether they pose any serious environmental risk. FDA officials said they were focusing on animals that will be used as food, or to produce medications that would then be consumed by people or by other animals. The agency is not interested in reviewing genetically engineered mice already widely used in lab experiments.