WASHINGTON — They may not be the 500-pound "Frankenfish" that some researchers were talking about 10 years ago, but a Massachusetts company says it's on the verge of receiving federal approval to market a quick-growing Atlantic salmon that's been genetically modified with help from a Pacific Chinook salmon.
Though genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans have been part of the American diet for several years, if the Food and Drug Administration approves it, the salmon would be the first transgenic animal headed for the dinner table.
"I would serve it to my kids," said Val Giddings, who worked as a geneticist at the U.S. Agriculture Department for a decade before becoming a private consultant.
The financial rewards could be enormous.
Aquaculture is already an $86 billion-a-year business, with nearly half of all fish consumed globally farm raised. As wild stocks dwindle and the world's population heads toward 9 billion, fish farmers will be looking for fish that will be market-ready quicker.
Even so, skeptics abound.
Fears persist about possible health risks from genetically modified food in general, but concerns about bioengineered salmon also extend to the environment.
Farmed salmon are raised in net pens in coastal waters along Washington state, Maine and British Columbia. Most commonly, the fish being raised are Atlantic salmon, and the fear is they'll escape and compete with endangered native stocks. By some estimates, between 400,000 and 1 million Atlantic salmon have escaped into the wild from the 75 or so net-pen operations in British Columbia.
A Purdue University study using a computer model, widely criticized by the biotechnology industry, showed that if 60 transgenic fish bred in a population of 60,000 wild fish, the wild fish would be extinct in 40 generations.
"We've seen assurances in the past from industry and regulators that there won't be catastrophic consequences like the Gulf oil spill," said George Kimbrell, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety. "We have a cultural amnesia about these things."
If the FDA approves the transgenic salmon, his group would consider litigation to stop it, Kimbrell said.
AquaBounty, which calls its super salmon an "advanced hybrid" rather than a transgenic fish, said they're safe to eat and would be raised in contained farming operations that could be based inland rather than along coastal waters. And the modified fish, all females, would be sterile so that they couldn't breed with wild fish if any escaped, the company said.
AquaBounty's fish grow faster but not bigger that normal Atlantic salmon. The company says that genetically modified salmon are identical to regular salmon in every way except for the genes that have been added.
Company researchers have added a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon as well as an on-switch gene from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon, to a normal Atlantic salmon's roughly 40,000 genes. Salmon normally feed only during the spring and summer, but when the on-switch from the pout's gene is triggered, they eat year round.
The result is a transgenic salmon that grows to market size in about half the time as a normal salmon — 16 to 18 months, rather than three years.
AquaBounty would market the eggs from a transgenic salmon, not the actual fish.
After first filing for approval a decade ago to bring the fish to market, the company said in a recent press release that the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine has reviewed in detail five of the seven sections of its application.
"The company believes the reviews for the remaining two parts of the application are very nearly complete," AquaBounty said, adding that its management was "confident of a successful outcome in the near future."
The FDA doesn't comment on pending applications, though a public hearing on the AquaBounty application could come as early as this fall. Such public hearings can signal the FDA is close to a decision.
Once approved, AquaBounty said it could start marketing the eggs from transgenic salmon within two or three years. The company is also reportedly developing transgenic tilapia and trout.
Scientists elsewhere are working on cattle that would be resistant to mad cow disease, and researchers in Canada have developed an "enviropig," which would produce manure with less harmful levels of phosphorus.
Biotech crops are spreading worldwide, with 14 million farmers growing them in 25 countries, including the U.S. About 330 million acres are planted globally, an 80-fold increase since 1996.
Giddings, the former USDA geneticist, said that 77 percent of the global soybean harvest was transgenic, 26 percent of the feed corn, 21 percent of canola and 49 percent of cotton. All told, Gidding said, there are 60 to 70 transgenic crops ranging from papayas to yellow squash.
"All have been reviewed by the FDA," said Giddings, who also worked for a leading biotech industry group. "There is no greater risk from eating transgenic crops than eating non-transgenic crops."
AquaBounty officials weren't available for comment, but the company's publicist referred calls to Giddings.
Giddings said he hadn't eaten a transgenic salmon, but people he'd talked to who'd attended AquaBounty fish fries said they taste just like non-transgenic fish. He dismisses health safety concerns and fears that the fish could pose a threat to native stocks.
"Transgenic foods are subjected to more scrutiny than any other food in history," he said.
However, critics say there are no guarantees the transgenic salmon would be raised in contained, inland pens, and that claims of sterility can be overblown. The company says that 99 percent of the transgenic fish will be sterile, a level that meets FDA requirements.
"I hope that's true," said Eric Hoffman, who works on genetic technology policy for Friends of the Earth.
FDA regulations don't specifically address whether transgenic food is safe for public health and the environment, Hoffman said, and the approval process is so closed it's impossible to tell whether fish raised from AquaBounty's eggs will have to be labeled as transgenic. Products made from transgenic crops in the U.S. don't have to carry a special label.
"This is all about corporate profit and not public health," Hoffman said.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2010