Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence




  1. A Scottish Company, Otter Ferry Salmon Ltd, notified the Health and Safety Executive on 20 December 1995 of their intention to undertake genetic modification of the Atlantic salmon. They were proposing to produce transgenic Atlantic Salmon carrying extra copies of the Chinook Salmon growth hormone gene, linked to the "anti-freeze" protein gene promoter from the Ocean Pout. The Atlantic Pout is a member of the Cod family, and is able to survive extreme cold that would kill salmon.

  2. The Company were intending to evaluate technology developed in Canada, primarily to develop methods to protect farmed Salmon from freezing during severe cold weather. The strategy involved the insertion of an "anti-freeze" gene, which would produce a protein which would protect the fish from freezing. A growth hormone gene was also attached to the anti-freeze gene, in an attempt to accelerate growth. The experiment was successful in initial laboratory trials, but was apparently blocked by the Canadian authorities, due to concerns about environmental safety.

  3. These concerns centred on the ability of any escaped salmon to move to waters normally too cold for survival, hence opening up new habitats. Furthermore, the fish could grow to a very large size—in initial experiments the salmon grew at up to 22 times normal rate, with 10 times being average.

  4. Following the success of the early work, the scientists removed the anti-freeze gene, and concentrated on the potential for accelerated growth. They contacted Otter Ferry Salmon Ltd., with a view to evaluating the technology on a commercial fish farm. Otter Ferry were identified because they are land based, and do not use sea cages. However, they are located on the shore of Loch Fyne, which is a habitat for wild Atlantic Salmon.

  5. Following the initial notification to HSE, concerns were raised over the potential environmental impact in the event of an accidental release of the transgenic fish, and a site inspection was arranged to assess the standard of containment, and evaluate the likely degree of control. The site was visited on 2 February 1995, as part of my section's primary inspection programme. As the concerns being raised were entirely environmental, I invited Dr Monroe from the Scottish Office marine laboratory in Aberdeen, to accompany me.

  6. I made a series of recommendations to the Company, relating to physical containment and management procedures, incorporating advice from fish farming experts in Scottish Office and MAFF, as well as advice from DOE (DETR). The company indicated that it would be able to comply with the recommendations, and that no work would start until HSE was satisfied with the facility.

  7. A clearance letter under the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained Use) Regulations 1992, was issued to Otter Ferry on 17 March, indicating that HSE had no objections to work commencing on human health and safety grounds, but reminding the company that there were outstanding environmental issues to be resolved. Work with salmon is seasonal, and the notifiers indicated that they wished to start in November/December 1995.

  8. Otter Ferry contacted HSE in April 1995 to confirm that the recommendations had been met, and a second visit was arranged for 30 May. An old "wet laboratory" had been converted into the containment unit, and whilst the standard of containment was considerably higher than the original facility, a number of further recommendations were made.

  9. These were complied with, and a final check visit was arranged for 6 October. During the visit I was again accompanied by Dr Monroe (Scottish Office). A full inspection was carried out, and included testing of alarm systems and back-up procedures. A number of refinements to the system were suggested, and these were agreed by the company. A letter containing the recommendations, was sent to Otter Ferry on 13 October. This letter indicated that HSE, acting on behalf of Scottish Office and DOE, had no objections to work commencing, assuming the standards of containment were maintained, and management control was adequate to ensure long term containment.

  10. Work commenced in January 1996, with scientists from Canada coming over to carry out the micro-injection of the fish eggs. The results were not as good as hoped, and some 150 "transgenics" were identified from 10,000 eggs injected. These showed considerably increased growth, although the work was not carried out in a scientific manner, and all the non-transgenic "controls" were destroyed, making meaningful comparisons impossible.

  11. The company was visited again to ensure that work procedures and management controls were being maintained. Standards on subsequent visits were good. During these visits, the Company indicated that they were looking for someone else to take the work on, as it was not central to their business aims. Furthermore, publicity about the work, both in the UK and Europe was damaging their reputation. They were unable to find anyone willing to take over the project, and the transgenics were destroyed. No further work is planned.

  12. If you require further briefing papers, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Dr Paul Logan

Directorate of Science and Technology

Biotechnology Section

5 June 1998

Background notes

  (i) All organisations wishing to undertake research involving genetic modification under contained conditions for the first time, have to notify HSE 90 days in advance under the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained Use) Regulations 1992, as amended in 1996. Unless HSE objects work can commence after the 90 day period. HSE usually sends a "clearance letter" to the notifier, however, this is not a consent or licence. This legislation covers both human health and environmental safety in relation to genetically modified micro-organisms, and human health aspects of work involving genetically modified animals and plants. Environmental safety aspects of the work is covered by the Genetically Modified Organisms (Risk assessment) (Records and exemptions) Regulations 1996, which implemented Section 108(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

  (ii) HSE undertakes inspections of facilities used for the containment of transgenic animals and plants under a Departmental arrangement with DETR, who have the lead in relation to environmental safety aspects of genetic modification work in England and Wales. DETR advise the Scottish Office on these environmental safety issues.

  (iii) HSE specialist inspectors carry warrants issued under the Environment Protection Act 1990. They have the power to issue a prohibition notice if work activities could lead to harm to the environment, or to prosecute in serious cases.

  (iv) Initial Inspection of the facilities that were notified as the "Containment area" revealed that the standard of containment was poor, and there was a significant risk of accidental release. Following the inspection it was made clear to the Company that I did not consider that the containment measures were adequate to ensure that genetically modified fish could not enter the environment. It was made clear that work should not proceed unless the facilities were appropriate to ensure that the genetically modified fish could not enter into the environment.

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