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Published Jul. 12, 2010

WASHINGTON - They may not be the 500-pound "Frankenfish" that some researchers were talking about 10 years ago, but a Massachusetts company says it is 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.

After first filing for approval a decade ago to bring the fish to market, the company said in a recent news 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.