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This handout photo, released August 30, 2010, compares the size of its genetically engineered AquAdvantage Salmon (background) to an Atlantic salmon of the same age (foreground). (REUTERS/Barrett & McKay Photo/REUTERS/Barrett & McKay Photo)
This handout photo, released August 30, 2010, compares the size of its genetically engineered AquAdvantage Salmon (background) to an Atlantic salmon of the same age (foreground). (REUTERS/Barrett & McKay Photo/REUTERS/Barrett & McKay Photo)

Engineered-in-Canada salmon declared fit for the dinner plate Add to ...

Salmon engineered in Eastern Canada to grow twice as fast as their wild counterparts are poised to become the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption in North America.

The DNA-altered salmon are "as safe to eat as food as other Atlantic salmon" and have "no biologically relevant differences," the United States Food and Drug Administration said in a preliminary analysis of the fish released Friday. The federal food regulator is set to hold three days' worth of public hearings later this month to review questions over whether the salmon are safe to eat and safe for the environment - a step widely perceived as one of the fish's final hurdles to entering the human food chain.

If the fish wins final FDA approval, it will would effectively pave the way for other scientifically engineered animals to enter the food chain in the United States, and possibly Canada. The impact the technology will have on salmon prices is unclear - sockeye prices plummeted in British Columbia this week after a historic boom in the supply of wild salmon.

Still, even if the fish is approved, it could take two years or more to reach U.S. grocery shelves, said Ronald Stotish, the CEO of the international biotech firm AquaBounty Technologies, which has been trying for more than a decade to win approval for the fish. Canadians, though, will have to wait even longer for a chance to sample the salmon. While the company has plans to seek approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to market the fish here, Dr. Stotish said discussions with regulators are "very preliminary."

Instead, the firm, which is publicly traded in London, has been focused on figuring out how to get the product approved in the United States, where there was initially much confusion among government officials over whether genetically modified animals fell under the purview of environment, farm or food authorities. Ultimately, the FDA decided to treat genetically modified animals as if they were veterinary drugs; AquaBounty has since submitted hundreds of pages of documentation to the authority demonstrating that the fish is safe for consumption and for the environment.

Dr. Stotish attests that it is - he has eaten the fish on many occasions, he said.

"This is an Atlantic salmon that is identical in every regard to wild Atlantic salmon. The nutrition is the same, the texture and so forth," he said. "If we were to prepare our fish and other fish of the same size from other sources, you could not tell the difference."

Originally conceived of by a pair of researchers at Memorial University in Newfoundland, the salmon was refined in the company's Prince Edward Island hatchery. (Dr. Stotish declined to reveal the location of the hatchery for fear it will be targeted more by activists in the coming weeks, he said.)

Now called AquAdvantage, the salmon resembles the non-genetically modified Atlantic version, but contains a growth hormone from Chinook salmon as well as genes from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon, which act as an "on-switch" to keep up the fish's growth-hormone production in cold weather.

The result is a fish that attains market weight in half the time as a non-genetically altered fish - instead of three to four years, the AquAdvantage fish grows to full size in 16 to 18 months.

Consumer and environmental groups are expected to raise significant objections to AquAdvantage's approval given that it could pave the way for more similar rulings.

However, Dr. Stotish said the approval of AquAdvantage will have a low environmental impact (only sterile female fish are bred), and its influence on the marketplace could lead to positive changes in the way food is produced.

AquAdvantage is designed for cultivation in indoor, land-based facilities rather than in open-net ocean pens that are notorious for wreaking environmental havoc, meaning production facilities could theoretically be set up anywhere, Dr. Stotish said.

"Instead of flying salmon from the south of Chile or from the North Atlantic or Norway, it's possible to grow salmon closer to consumption centres, reducing their environmental footprint," he said. And the fish's double-fast growth rate also offers a potential solution for those concerned with mitigating the impending global food shortage, he said.

"The world population will reach nine billion people in 20 years," he said. "At that rate, it's hard to imagine how we will develop food systems able to sustain that world. This technology will be part of the solution."

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