AquaBounty Hoping to Serve DNA-Altered Salmon on US Plates

Critics call it "Frankenfish" but FDA scientists say it's safe to eat.

ByABC News
December 4, 2012, 12:03 AM

Dec. 4, 2012 — -- Deep in the rain forests of Panama, in a secret location behind padlocked gates, barbed-wire fences and over a rickety wooden bridge, grows what could be the most debated food product of our time.

It may look like the 1993 hit movie "Jurassic Park," but at this real-life freshwater farm scientists are altering the genes not of dinosaurs -- but of fish.

They are growing a new DNA-altered saltwater fish in the mountains, far from the sea -- a salmon that could be the first genetically altered animal protein approved for the world to eat. If it is approved, this would be a landmark change for human food.

But it is one critics call "Frankenfish."

"The idea of changing an animal form, I think, is really creepy," said Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy farm. "When you move the DNA from a species into another species ... you create a new life form that's so new and so unique that you can get a patent for it."

And until now, AquaBounty, the multinational biotech company that for 20 years has been developing this giant fish, has kept it under close wraps.

The press has never been invited to its Prince Edward Island laboratory on the Canadian maritime coast, and its fish farm location in Panama has been kept secret out of fear of sabotage.

The Food and Drug Administration has seen it, but few from the outside. In fact, the last public tour of any kind was four years ago.

AquaBounty Creates 'Fort Knox for Fish'

ABC News was given exclusive access to see the facilities up close and an opportunity to taste this mysterious fish that FDA scientists say "is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon," although have yet to officially approve it for public sale.

Ron Stotish, the president and CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, the company that created and hopes to market the eggs of this salmon to independent fish farms around the world, told ABC News it has employed bio-security measures, creating a "Fort Knox for fish," to ensure safety for the fish and prevent cross-contamination with the wild.

Entry to both facilities begins with body suits and iodine baths for shoes, which serves to keep the fish safe from germs.

Inside these protected tanks, America gets the first up-close look at the final product, the fish that has the food police up in arms.

"These are very healthy, beautiful Atlantic salmon," Stotish said.

With one big difference -- the growth rate of a regular salmon compared to that of an AquaBounty genetically modified fish.

While the AquaBounty fish do not grow to a size larger than normal salmon, they get to full size much faster, cutting costs for producers.

A normal-size 1-year-old Atlantic salmon averages 10 inches long, while the genetically modified fish at the same age is more than two times larger, coming in at 24 inches.

Salmon is the second most popular seafood in America. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average size of an Atlantic salmon is 28 inches to 30 inches and 8 pounds to 12 pounds after two years at sea.

How do they accomplish the accelerated growth?

"They differ by a single gene," Stotish said.

But, it's that single gene change that makes the DNA-altered salmon grow much faster than a normal Atlantic salmon, because it's really three fish in one.

AquaBounty scientists have taken a growth gene from the Chinook salmon and inserted it into the DNA of the Atlantic salmon because Chinooks grow fast from birth, while Atlantics do not.

"Salmon in their first two years of life grow very slowly," Stotish said.