The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved genetically modified salmon for human consumption, the first such modified food animal to get the agency's approval.

The approval of the salmon — genetically altered to grow twice as fast as natural salmon — comes after years of debate and review, with the FDA finally announcing its finding that the fish is safe to eat.

Although GMO varieties of fruits and vegetables have been in U.S. markets for more than two decades, the salmon from Massachusetts-based AquaBounty are the first genetically engineered food animal to receive FDA approval.

Dubbed AquAdvantage, the modified salmon have a gene from a close cousin, the Chinook salmon as well as genetic material taken from an ocean-going eel-like species known as pout fish.

The genetic alterations turn on the AquAdvantage fishes' growth gene at all times of the year rather than in warmer months as seen in wild or conventional farm-raised Atlantic salmon.

That means the modified fish reach a marketable size in just 18 months rather than the usual three years.

There are "no biologically relevant differences in the nutritional profile of AquAdvantage Salmon compared with that of other farm-raised Atlantic salmon," the FDA said in a statement.

Many groups, including food safety campaigners and environmental activists, have opposed the approval of the fish they call "Frankenfish."

In the face of the FDA approval, they have changed tactics and have secured commitments from some of America's largest food outlets — including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and Target — to refuse to sell the modified fish.

AquaBounty has yet to announce when its salmon might reach the marketplace.

AquaBounty CEO Ron Stotish says his company's genetically modified fish are a "game changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats."

Some opponents have expressed fears the AquAdvantage fish could escape and become established in the wild, a fear discounted by the FDA.

AquaBounty's extensive containment system makes it "extremely unlikely that the fish could escape and establish themselves in the wild," the agency says.

The fish will be farmed in Panama and Canada in tanks on land, not in the water, the agency explains, and AquaBounty will raise only sterile female fish that can't reproduce.

That reassurance fell on deaf ears in the environmental community.

"It was a flawed and irresponsible approval ... It sets a very dangerous precedent, given our federal government agencies are ill-equipped to handle genetically engineered animals," said Dana Perls at Friends of the Earth, which has opposed AquaBounty's efforts. "I think it is a grave mistake we will come to regret."

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