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Groups launch court challenge of federal approval of genetically modified salmon

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OTTAWA - A trio of environmental groups has filed a suit in Federal Court challenging Environment Canada's decision to approve the production of genetically modified Atlantic salmon eggs.

The suit contends the federal department did not follow its own legislated rules and do a full risk assessment before clearing a U.S. company to produce the eggs in Prince Edward Island.

Boston-based AquaBounty Technologies says it has found a way to make Atlantic salmon grow twice as fast as normal by modifying eggs with genes from chinook salmon and an eel-like fish called the ocean pout.

It has been seeking regulatory approval in the United States since 1995. And while neither Canada nor the U.S. has approved the fish for human consumption, Environment Canada's decision to green-light the manufacture of eggs in Souris, P.E.I., is seen as a significant milestone.

The court challenge demands the release of documentation on how the Harper government made its regulatory decision and the data and studies it was based upon.

"This is a global precedent in the first genetically modified food to be approved for grow-out and for human consumption," Susanna Fuller of the Ecology Action Centre said in an interview Monday.

"We'd better be doing our due diligence on it, because it will set a precedent for others."

That's why the Ecology Action Centre, Living Oceans and Ecojustice launched the legal challenge, they say.

The problem, say the litigants, is that the entire process has been cloaked in secrecy.

Environment Canada refused to comment Monday, saying the matter is before the courts.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration received more than 30,000 public comments after its preliminary 2012 assessment of the modified salmon found it would have no significant environmental impact.

Environment Canada has not opened its process to public comment, and advocacy groups say they were unable to determine whether a risk assessment was even underway until the government announced its decision last November by publishing it in the Canada Gazette.

"The one way to really try to raise public awareness around this is you've got to take the government to court," said Fuller.

"The only recourse we have now is to take them directly to court ... because the public is just pretty much shut out of most of these decisions."

Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the government must evaluate new substances, including chemicals and genetically modified organisms, that are introduced into the environment.

The suit contends the government failed to take into account information that's required by the legislation, including test data on "toxicity, invasiveness and pathogenicity," said Will Amos, a lawyer with Ecojustice.

"Our clients' position is that the federal government did not conduct the assessment of this new genetically modified organism according to the law."

AquaBounty's plan is for the genetically modified fish to be grown in Panama and then later in other facilities, pending approval by U.S. authorities.

In a November release, AquaBounty said Environment Canada's approval was based on a close study of its hatchery facility in P.E.I., and the opinion of a panel of independent scientific experts through the department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Officials with AquaBounty did not respond to a request for comment on the legal challenge Monday.

The legal challenge was actually filed Dec. 23 but the suit was not publicly announced until Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Health Minister Rona Ambrose and AquaBounty Technologies all had been formally served notice.

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