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WASHINGTON -- Federal health regulators say a geneticallyengineered salmon that grows twice as fast as normal is unlikely to harmthe environment, clearing the way for the first approval of agenetically engineered animal for human consumption.

The Food andDrug Administration on Friday released its environmental assessment ofthe AquaAdvantage salmon, a faster-growing fish which has been subjectto a contentious, yearslong debate at the agency. The document concludesthat the fish "will not have any significant impacts on the quality ofthe human environment of the United States." Regulators also said thatthe fish is unlikely to harm populations of natural salmon, a keyconcern for environmental activists.

The FDA will take comments from the public on its report for 60 days before making it final.

TheFDA said more than two years ago that the fish appears to be safe toeat, but the agency had taken no public action since then. Executivesfor the company behind the fish, Maynard, Mass.-based AquaBounty,speculated that the government was delaying action on their applicationdue to push-back from groups who oppose genetically modified foodanimals.

Experts view the release of the environmental report as the final step before approval.

IfFDA regulators clear the salmon, as expected, it would be the firstscientifically altered animal approved for food anywhere in the world.

Criticscall the modified salmon a "frankenfish." They worry that it couldcause human allergies and the eventual decimation of the natural salmonpopulation if it escapes and breeds in the wild.

AquaBounty hasmaintained that the fish is safe and that there are several safeguardsagainst environmental problems. The fish would be bred female andsterile, though a very small percentage might still be able to breed.The company said the potential for escape is low. The FDA backed theseassertions in documents released in 2010.

Since its founding in1991, AquaBounty has burned through more than $67 million developing thefast-growing fish. According to its midyear financial report, thecompany had less than $1.5 million in cash and stock left. It has noother products in development.

The AquaAdvantage salmon has anadded growth hormone from the Pacific Chinook salmon that allows thefish to produce growth hormone all year long. The engineers were able tokeep the hormone active by using another gene from an eel-like fishcalled an ocean pout that acts like an "on" switch for the hormone.Typical Atlantic salmon produce the growth hormone for only part of theyear.

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