OTTAWA — Canadian grocery stores have received the regulatory green light to begin selling fast-growing, genetically modified salmon — the first such species to gain such approval from federal agencies.
Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced Thursday they had completed a scientific review of AquAdvantage's salmon and it has passed the final regulatory hurdle for the farmed fish.
The fish was developed by U.S.-based biotechnology firm AquaBounty Technologies Inc. to promote rapid growth of the fish during early life, using a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon in an Atlantic salmon.
The company has one facility in Canada, in Bay Fortune, P.E.I., and a production centre in Panama.
Dave Conley, a spokesman for the firm, said in an email that it will be a year or more before the firm has any production of market-sized fish.
The agencies say in a news release the fish have met the key hurdle of being "as safe and nutritious for humans and livestock as conventional salmon."
The regulators also said genetically modified foods are becoming more common every day and are a regular part of Canadians' diets.
However, an alliance of environmental groups raised questions about the review process, arguing there wasn't sufficient public input and — at the very least — the fish should be labelled.
"Canadians could now be faced with the world's first genetically modified food animal, approved with no pubic consultation and no labelling," said Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.
Labelling is voluntary, said Rola Yehia, national manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, during a conference call.
"Since in this case there is no health risk identified, there is no requirement for mandatory labelling," she said during a conference call.
Conley said in an email that the firm hasn't made any decisions on whether the fish will be labelled with his firm's brand or an indicator the fish are genetically modified.
NDP Health critic Don Davies said his party believes Ottawa must move to make labelling mandatory.
"If it is safe ... then labelling should not be an issue. It's just an issue of consumer protection and their right to know," he said.
Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay said a special committee will examine the issues surrounding the genetically modified food and make recommendations on possible labelling.
"It's a decision for the committee," he said, adding he expects a report back by the parliamentarians on the issue by the end of the year.
AquaBounty has said it plans to produce the salmon eggs in P.E.I. and grow them to full size in Panama, where they will be processed into fillets and shipped back to Canada for sale.
The process has drawn a campaign of public opposition and legal actions from environmental groups.
The Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society say in a news release they've launched a court action against the federal approval in 2013 of commercial production of genetically modified fish eggs and fish, and that case is ongoing.
— By Michael Tutton in Halifax.