* FDA to take comments for 60 days before giving final OK
* Critics seek action from Congress, threaten to sue
By Carey Gillam
Dec 21 (Reuters) - A controversial genetically engineered salmon has moved a step closer to the consumer's dining table after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday the fish didn't appear likely to pose a threat to the environment or to humans who eat it.
AquAdvantage salmon eggs would produce fish with the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. It would be the first food from a transgenic animal - one whose genome has been altered - that has been approved by the FDA.
The AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon egg was developed by AquaBounty Technology,, to speed up production to meet global seafood demand.
In a draft environmental assessment Friday, the FDA affirmed earlier findings that the biotech salmon was not likely to be harmful. It said it would take comments from the public on its report for 60 days before making a final decision on approval.
AquaBounty officials said they were caught by surprise by the FDA's news that it was a step closer to approval, as years of controversy had followed the company's application for the go-ahead from the regulator.
"We are encouraged that the environmental assessment is being released and hope the government continues the science-based regulatory process," said AquaBounty CEO Ronald Stotish.
Critics say the new salmon is a "dangerous experiment" and have pressured FDA to reject the genetically engineered salmon.
They said Friday they may file a lawsuit to prevent what they fear could be imminent approval of the engineered fish on the grounds that the FDA has failed to conduct a thorough assessment and because it wasn't clear if the fish would pose a threat to people who eat it or to wild fish.
They were also concerned the FDA wouldn't require the fish to be labeled.
"Congress can still keep FDA from unleashing this dangerous experiment," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group. "Although this latest FDA decision is a blow to consumer confidence, we encourage everyone to contact their members of Congress and demand this reckless decision be overturned."
The Center for Food Safety, another non-profit consumer protection group, was highly critical of the FDA report, and officials said they might sue the regulator over the issue.
"It is extremely disappointing that the Obama Administration continues to push approval of this dangerous and unnecessary product," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety. "The GE salmon has no socially redeeming value. It's bad for the consumer, bad for the salmon industry and bad for the environment."
FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky said no final decisions had been made on labeling or on the application for approval.
"The release of these materials is not a decision on whether food from AquAdvantage Salmon requires additional labeling; nor is it a decision on the new animal drug application currently under review. It also does not provide a final food safety determination," Liscinsky said. (Editing by Bernadette Baum)