You Could Be Eating Genetically Engineered Frankenfish Without Even Knowing It

In 2008, after what has been referred to as an "unusually severe storm," a Panama facility for genetically engineered AquAdvantage® Salmon lost its first commercial-size batch of fish. The entire batch—poof!—vanished.

The salmon were created at a facility on Canada's Prince Edward island by fertilizing the eggs of non-GE Atlantic salmon with milt from GE males, to produce what AquaBounty Technologies—a biotechnology company focused on enhancing productivity in the aquaculture market—describes as an advanced-hybrid salmon designed to grow faster than its conventional siblings.

Because the United States is their intended market, the AquAdvantage salmon operation is under FDA regulation. "If approved, the AquAdvantage® Salmon would be the first GE animal allowed for human consumption," reports Ari Levaux over at Outside Online. "This has made the fish's approval process especially contentious, and caused it to drag on since 1996, when the application was first filed."

At the time of their disappearance, the AquAdvantage® Salmon were still awaiting FDA approval.

Weirdly, reports Levaux, "Historical data from a weather station near the Panamanian facility suggest that, contrary to what the company told its investors, there was nothing 'unusually severe' about the storm." Moreover, it is unclear which storm the memo is referencing; as is typical of that time of year, there were several precipitation events in late July and early August 2008.

In an email, Susan Turner, spokesman for AquaBounty, told Levaux that "the damage in August 2008 was not caused by flooding. It happened when a tree fell on an intake pipe, which interrupted the supply of fresh water, which caused the fish to suffocate." Why the original company memo cited an "unusually severe storm" was not explained.

Turner also told Levaux that the Panamanian plant was high on a mountain, "intentionally far from any waterways, so there is no possibility of escape."

But the FDA literature contradicts this claim.

A briefing packet for a meeting of the FDA's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, or VMAC, held in September 2010, mentions an "adjacent" river that "runs next to the facility," and states, "should escape of AquAdvantage Salmon occur in Panama, survival is only expected in the vicinity of the grow-out facility and upper watershed of the adjacent river."

The ARAP's [Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama] research director, Ana Luisa Garcia, warned that if these fish are accidentally released into a natural habitat, like the "stream that runs near the area where the [fish] pools lie, it would cause ecological problems due to the predatory nature of the salmon."

AquaBounty, unwilling to have its name tarnished by the missing fish issue, would have you believe that there is nothing to fear:

AquaBounty claims there are multiple barriers in place to prevent gene escape, including temperatures near the river's mouth that are considered intolerably hot to Atlantic salmon. Also, the fish are screened to be all-female, and are sterilized, so that in the unlikely event of an escape the genes would have no way of spreading to the wild salmon population.

But in his reporting for Outside, Levaux reveals that it may not in fact be quite so simple—or so certain: sterilization techniques are not 100-percent effective, and differences in salmon temperature tolerance have been seen in genetically modified fish.

The question, now, is: what became of the missing Panamanian AquAdvantage® Salmon? Is it possible that they were harvested with other "natural" fish and unwittingly sold to grocery stores for us to consume?

Check out the rest of Ari Levaux somewhat disconcerting—but very excellent—story over at Outside Online. [OutsideMag - Image via vichie81/Shutterstock]