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Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean and her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond, in matching jackets, take part in a community feast in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, on Monday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean snacking on a slain seal's raw heart has sparked criticism from the European Union and animal rights groups.

Barbara Slee, an anti-seal hunt campaigner at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Brussels, said she was disgusted by Jean's actions.

"The fact that the Governor General in public is slashing and eating a seal, I don't think that really helps the cause, and I'm convinced that this will not change the mind of European citizens and politicians," Slee told The Associated Press.

"It amazes us that a Canadian official would indulge in such bloodlust," Dan Mathews, senior vice-president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told the Toronto Star.

"It sounds like she's trying to give Canadians an even more Neanderthal image around the world than they already have."

Kicking off a weeklong visit to Nunavut on Monday as part of the territory's 10th anniversary celebrations, Jean gutted and ate some fresh seal at a community festival in the central Nunavut community of Rankin Inlet.

The move, to show support for the beleaguered seal hunters, comes as the European Union voted earlier this month to impose a ban on seal products after years of intense lobbying by animal rights groups.

Asked Tuesday whether her actions were a message to Europe, Jean replied, "Take from that what you will."

A spokeswoman for EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas offered no official reaction.

"No comment — it's too bizarre to acknowledge," Barbara Helfferich said.

The EU's trade ban has limited exemptions to Inuit from Canada and Greenland to continue their traditional seal hunts. However, those exemptions are subject to a number of restrictions.

Canadian Inuit leaders praised Jean's gesture, saying it sends a strong message to the world about the traditional "country food" that Inuit rely on.

"Not everybody would do that, especially when they know that the seal hunt ... is a controversial issue because of the animal rights people," Mary Simon, head of the national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told CBC News on Tuesday.

"I just want to thank her for her support of our people and our culture."

Both Simon and Paul Kaludjak, president of the land claims group Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., said the seal hunt is not a controversial issue among Inuit.

"We don't really care about how the outside world thinks about how we eat our country food," Kaludjak said.

"Let them be disgusted, whatever they want to pursue, and that's their choice."

Kaludjak added there are better things to do than to criticize other people's practices.

Simon said people should take note of the message Jean is sending by eating the seal heart.

"It really sends a message out to the public that maybe these animal rights campaigns are off-base and are giving inaccurate information," Simon said.

Federal Defence Minister Peter MacKay weighed in on the controversy, offering Jean his full support.

"I think that was wonderful. I think she's Canada's new Braveheart for eating the seal heart," MacKay told reporters following question period in Ottawa on Tuesday.

When asked if he would eat a piece of seal heart, MacKay, who said he has eaten seal liver and flippers, replied, "Sure! Absolutely. I'd love to try it."