(NEW YORK) — Deep in the rainforests 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 lifeform 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.
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.
Then there is one more genetic alteration — a growth switch from a sea eel also is inserted in the Atlantic salmon DNA because natural salmon normally only grow in summer. The eel grows all year round.
John Buchanan, the director of research and development for AquaBounty, has been working on the salmon for two decades and explained that the change allows the fish to start growing from birth.
“You get to market size at least 12 months before any other type of salmon out there,” Buchanan said.
AquaBounty says the fish are ready for market and it now wants the FDA to give final approval of what it calls the AquaAdvantage salmon for American dinner plates.
Already 80 percent of U.S. corn, soybeans and sugar beets are genetically altered, but until now … never meat.
“It opens up a whole other section of the grocery store, to a technology which we think is still not fully understood,” said Patty Lovera, the assistant director of consumer rights group Food & Water Watch.
Sensitive to criticism that these fish could escape into the wild and wipe out natural salmon, AquaBounty is anxious to show what it says are 16 redundant safety nets to keep their fish inside.
“We’ve been operating this facility for more than 20 years and we’ve never lost a single fish,” Stotish said.
Another safeguard, Stotish explains, is that these super-fish are sterile.
“These animals can’t transmit their genetic information to generations. They’re incapable of breeding and that’s perhaps the most important part,” he said.
That assures nothing can go wrong with this fish altered by science to grow and get to market faster, he said.
“This fish is identical to traditional salmon in every measurable way,” Stotish said.
Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist for Consumers Union, said he thinks science has gone too far though.
“I wouldn’t want to eat this fish, unless it’s gone through a proper approval process,” he said.
There is no proven link between genetically altered food and health problems, but critics are skeptical about AquaBounty studies and complain government scientists have not done enough independent work, and ignore the unknown.
They worry, but have no proof that this new fish will increase allergies, and they theorize its altered hormone system could somehow cause cancer. The FDA’s review of company data found those concerns unfounded.
But Hansen remained skeptical.
“That kind of science wouldn’t make it past a high school science fair,” he said.
When ABC News asked AquaBounty whether eating its fish should be cause for concern or fear, the company argued that DNA is in everything a person eats.
“You eat DNA every time you swallow,” Stotish said. “You consume DNA with every food that you eat.”
But when pressed by ABC News about the difference in the fish’s altered DNA, Stotish responded that the alteration comes from a nearly identical fish and if eaten will make consumers healthier.
“The gene that’s responsible for the rapid growth comes from the Chinook salmon, a Pacific salmon, that protein is essentially identical to the same protein that’s produced by Atlantic salmon,” Stotish said. “You have healthier levels of Omega 3-fatty acids, you will be consuming a very lean source of protein.”
ABC News was offered an opportunity to taste the DNA-altered salmon to see whether there is a difference in flavor or texture. None was noticed.
Currently, there are almost no commercial wild Atlantic salmon left in the world and virtually everything consumers purchase at the store is raised in ocean pens at salmon farms as far away as Chile or Norway.
AquaBounty argues its freshwater fish will be raised closer to big cities and be fresher and environmentally friendlier because there will be no need to ship them from overseas.
“Man has been altering the nature of animals since man walked upright and began domesticating animals,” Stotish said. “The beef that we consume, the pork we consume today don’t resemble their early ancestors at all.”
If FDA approval doesn’t come soon, AquaBounty says its 20-year investment will go belly-up — which the company says will be a setback for its investors and for science.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Rebecca Clyde, KSL.com
Nate Sunderland, EastIdahoNews.com
Ruth Brown, Idaho Press-Tribune
Stephan Rockefeller, EastIdahoNews.com