CFIA fast-tracked tests on genetically modified salmon eggs for exports, documents suggest

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency fast-tracked safety tests on eggs from genetically modified salmon in order to hit an export deadline last year, according to internal government documents.

Documents obtained under Access to Information by researcher Ken Rubin and shared with CBC News show that veterinarians working in Prince Edward Island and other inspection offices of the CFIA were under “pressure” to get the inspections for diseases and viruses done quickly.

At one point, documents suggest the CFIA got permission to jump the queue over other pending tests to speed up the process and sent batches of eggs to three federal labs across the country for testing.

The CFIA’s mandate is to ensure safety in food animals and plants in Canada and in products exported to other countries.

More than six hundred pages of emails show the discussions between the CFIA and AquaBounty, a Massachusetts-based company that is producing the world’s first genetically modified salmon for human consumption. It is also exporting fish eggs to other countries for research and for fish production.

AquaBounty salmon are genetically altered to grow faster. They are sterile and grown in landlocked tanks in Prince Edward Island and Panama.

The salmon were approved for human consumption in May, 2016 in Canada, but leading up to that approval, AquaBounty was negotiating its first major permits for genetically modified salmon eggs for export to China, Argentina and Brazil for research. It was also seeking new permits to send eggs to Panama for commercial use.

‘Pressure’ on inspectors

Canadian food safety inspectors set up a schedule to conduct four “disease freedom tests” on hundreds of fish eggs before they were granted export permits.

But documents suggest the plan resulted in a scramble for CFIA inspectors to test the salmon eggs. Meanwhile, it appears they were facing “pressure” from AquaBounty, which needed to meet its export deadlines. The documents show top officials at the food safety regulator were concerned over the short time frame and pressure from the company.

“I am wondering if you are aware of the status of the Export Certificate of salmonoids … The stakeholder rep. is bugging our inspectors in P.E.I.,” said Samson OgunTona, CFIA’S National Operations Veterinary Specialist, in an email from January, 2016. 

AquaBounty egg screenshot

A screenshot from the AquaBounty website showing genetically-modified salmon eggs. (AquaBounty web video)

“The exporter is putting tremendous pressure on Ops in Atlantic region to conduct testing for export,” warned Michael Langlet, a policy and programme specialist, a month later.

Documents show AquaBounty was concerned that after its March 23 deadline, fish eggs would start hatching and would be useless to its customers. It sent regular e-mails to CFIA inspectors about the tests.

“When will the results be available on the last set of samples?” an employee at the company asked the CFIA in March as the deadline loomed.

“Is there anything I can do to assist this process?” asked the company representative; at one point the person offered to help write the export labels for its products.

CFIA: prompting ‘not unusual’

The chief regional inspector in Atlantic Canada, David Cameron, says discussions with the exporter are just part of the process.

“It’s not unusual for us to receive some prompting from industry … regardless of commodity, to facilitate those exports,” said Cameron in an interview with CBC.

AquaBounty didn’t respond to CBC’s questions by deadline, but in an email exchange with CBC News on Jan. 3, the company denied it was improperly pressuring the federal regulator.

“We had eggs with a limited shelf life (i.e., viability) that needed to be shipped by a certain date and we had provided CFIA with all the information required to obtain the permits,” said Dave Conley, AquaBounty’s director of communications wrote in an email.

“We were only asking CFIA to do their job and complete the process in a timely manner.”

AquaBounty salmon filet

AquaBounty has been approved to sell genetically-modified salmon as food in Canada and the United States. The company says once its salmon is harvested it cannot be distinguished from regular salmon. (AquaBounty)

At one point, it appears the CFIA gave permission to one of its Newfoundland veterinarians to put the salmon eggs at the top of the testing priority list.

“Karla had asked and received permission for those samples to jump ‘queue,'” wrote the CFIA’s national manager, Joanne Constantine.

The CFIA’s David Cameron says AquaBounty didn’t get any special treatment.

“It’s not necessarily jumping the queue. This is a very perishable product and in the interest of preserving its integrity and its viability … exports take priority over imports and depending on the commodity and perishability,” he said.

But the documents also show the CFIA was keenly aware of the commercial impact of the exports.

The federal veterinarian responsible for testing at AquaBounty Farms, Jean MacLean, wrote in an email, “There is pressure to get testing done for export purposes for this operator on a very short timeline.”

“I asked my Inspection Manager …about it as this has a very large commercial impact,” she said in the email contained in the documents.

It appears it was also an issue for one of the CFIA’s top veterinarians.

“CFIA is aware of the urgency which Aquabounty has concerning these negotiations. CFIA addresses these negotiations as a trade issue priority for Aquabounty, and is addressing these negotiations as a priority,” wrote Dr Douglas Aitken, national operations veterinary specialist.

‘Great deal of back and forth’: critic

The coordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network says the CFIA appears to have lost sight of its main job — to impartially test for product safety.
    
“The CFIA was spending a great deal of time and resources facilitating this product,” said Lucy Sharratt in an interview with CBC.

“It’s not the government’s responsibility to make sure that AquaBounty can move its products around. The responsibility in this case is to make sure the products are safe when they’re moved around.”

Sharratt’s group acts as a watchdog on genetically modified products and fought unsuccessfully in court to try to stop approval of AquaBounty’s salmon.

She thinks the emails show the CFIA was heavily influenced by the company’s schedule to get its products quickly tested for export.

“There was a great deal of back and forth with many people over the testing and the timeline of the testing. And the types of pressure put on labs to jump the cue. That there was some sort of an allowance made for AquaBounty because of this time frame,” said Sharratt.

She also wonders about how much the CFIA was influenced by the company and the economic value of the controversial product.

“It is a concern that departments are not prepared to deal with the type of corporate pressure that can be brought to bear on them from companies, she said.

“How to make sure that staff can do their jobs in the context of the right mandate without becoming advocates for companies.”

But David Cameron says the CFIA doesn’t cut corners when it comes to testing, no matter what the product.
 
“We would not endorse an export certificate unless we were sure that all of the health any safety factors were addressed by one method or another.”

Exterior of the AquaBounty salmon facility

The exterior of the AquaBounty genetically-modified salmon facility. (AquaBounty)

According to the documents, between January and March 31 of last year, the CFIA approved all the new export permits for genetically modified salmon eggs for which AquaBounty applied.

It has approved three more export permits for AquaBounty since then.