WASHINGTON (AP) – The food industry has waited a long time for biotech products aimed at giving consumers better health and a cleaner environment. Genetically engineered animals, however, are not what the industry has in mind.

So far, the biotech products in the marketplace resist pests and tolerate chemicals, clearly offering benefits to farmers, not consumers.

Still, consumers have come to accept food from genetically engineered plants. They buy tacos, nacho chips and tofu without thinking twice that many of them are produced with genetically modified corn and soybeans. Farmers now devote three-fourths of the nation’s soybean acreage and 40 percent of their corn plantings to biotech varieties.

But gene-altered animals? Well, that’s a different animal.

While researchers look to combining genes from varied species with the aim of improving flavor or increasing nutrients in items like meat, milk and eggs, or producing less waste, industry leaders fear consumers will reject them.

“Animals are a different issue,” said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. “Consumers want to know what the benefits are.”

Polls show that Americans are much more skittish about tinkering with the genes of livestock than crops.

Nonetheless, transgenic salmon could hit the market within five years. The fish, developed by Aqua Bounty Technologies Inc. of Waltham, Mass., are designed to grow bigger, faster, and produce less waste than their wild cousins.

Aqua Bounty is the only company to have applied so far to the Food and Drug Administration to market a transgenic animal. It has submitted test results it says demonstrate its bioengineered Atlantic salmon are safe.

Elliot Entis, the company’s CEO, said the bioengineered salmon won’t be sold directly to food companies nor to restaurants. “We’re like a seed supplier. We’re only going to be selling fish eggs,” he said.

But fish farms using the eggs would be selling fish to be turned into canned salmon or fillets at restaurants. Entis said Aqua Bounty supports labeling the salmon as bioengineered to differentiate it from conventional fish.

Aqua Bounty’s fish is spliced with a Chinook salmon growth gene and an antifreeze gene from an ocean pout; together, the brew enables the engineered fish to grow four times faster than normal. The fish also don’t produce as much waste, Entis said, a benefit that could be promoted on its label.

Environmental groups argue that transgenic animals and fish are ecologically risky because the animals could escape into the wild and take over food supplies and habitats of their conventional counterparts. The groups also fear the animals would breed with conventional ones, passing on their mutant genes, which would phase out whole species.

Thomas Hoban, a sociology and food science professor at North Carolina State University, said many companies are just beginning to balance the benefits and higher yields from biotech animals with the risk of losing customers who worry about the welfare of animals and the environment.

Some food processors worry that biotech animals could cause a food scare that could cost them millions of dollars in losses, Hoban said.

“They’re not seeing cost-savings,” Hoban said of processors. “They’re just seeing headaches.”

One incident already has hit close to home.

Last February the FDA discovered that some pigs that were supposed to have been destroyed after a biotech study may have entered the food supply after being sold to a livestock dealer. The pigs, developed at the University of Illinois, were offspring of genetically engineered pigs. The university said the piglets did not carry the altered genes, and the FDA determined there was no health risk.

Hoban, who has done several surveys to evaluate consumer opinion about biotech, cited some biotech experiments that involved transplanting genes from humans into pigs. If those animals were to get into the food supply, it would be difficult for the food industry to recover, he said.

FDA officials maintain the approval process is stringent enough to protect the public. The biotech industry agrees, saying it is taking appropriate measures to prevent the worst from happening, designing animals that cannot reproduce and that would be raised in confinement.

On the Net:

Aqua Bounty Technologies: http://www.aquabounty.com/

AP-ES-10-04-03 1219EDT

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