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A genetically modified salmon, rear, and a non-genetically modified salmon, foreground, of the same age.AquaBounty Technologies/The Canadian Press

Health Canada has approved genetically modified salmon as safe for consumption, allowing for the first time genetically altered animals on Canadian grocery store shelves.

The federal agency's decision Thursday follows a decades-long fight by AquaBounty Technologies, a company with roots in Canada, to sell its product in North America. The decision was met with fierce opposition by environmental groups who question the safety of the product and who say the approval opens the door to other genetically engineered animals.

Health Canada said Thursday its scientists conducted "a thorough analysis" of AquAdvantage, AquaBounty's brand of genetically modified salmon. By introducing a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon, the company is able to grow Atlantic salmon to market size in half the amount of time – from about 40 months down to 20.

"In every other way, the AquAdvantage salmon is identical to other farmed salmon," the agency said in a statement. "Following this assessment, it was determined that the changes made to the salmon did not pose a greater risk to human health than salmon currently available on the Canadian market."

The fish will not need to be labelled as genetically modified. In Canada, such labels are required only in cases where the food poses a health risk, or if nutritional qualities have been significantly changed.

The United States Food and Drug Administration made a similar decision to allow the sale of AquAdvantage last year.

The Massachusetts-based company was formed based on research out of Memorial University in Newfoundland and began seeking approval from U.S. regulators in the 1990s. The company still operates a hatchery in Prince Edward Island.

"We are thrilled and grateful," AquaBounty CEO Ronald Stotish said in an interview. Mr. Stotish said the product likely won't reach stores for another year or two.

"Our approval is more than just an approval to grow salmon," he said. Recently, supporters of genetically modified foods have called it an important tool for maintaining food security.

"This opens the door now for an important technology to grow food for our future," Mr. Stotish said.

But groups opposed to genetically modified fish said they fear Thursday's decision will set a precedent.

The same day as Health Canada's announcement, Agriculture Minister, Lawrence MacAulay, announced he has directed his parliamentary committee to examine regulations around genetically modified animals.

Such foods have long been a lightning rod for controversy – with activists and environmental groups branding products such as the salmon as "Frankenfish."

After the federal government approved AquaBounty's request to produce genetically modified salmon eggs back in 2013, the Ecology Action Centre, a Halifax-based group, was one of two organizations to take the government to court. That case was dismissed, although the groups have since appealed that decision.

In an interview, Calinda Brown, a co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, said the fish could escape and pose a risk to wild salmon populations.

In a briefing with media Thursday, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada official said the fish are sterile and would be "well-contained" in land-based facilities.

But Ms. Brown said a small risk is still a risk. "There's no way you can compensate anyone for the loss of wild Atlantic salmon populations."

Ms. Brown also dismissed the idea that such foods could address food security. "This is a luxury item," she said. "The only reason it was developed was so companies could make money."

Health Canada officials say there are currently no other genetically modified animal applications before the agency seeking approval.

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