WASHINGTON—The government is poised to allow cloned meat and dairy products into stores and restaurants near you, possibly as soon as the end of 2007.
Some cattle ranchers, who see the move as a step into the future, are hailing the action. Others worry that it could hurt the marketing of American food and that cloned products could reach the kitchens of unknowing consumers.
"If they're going to make us guinea pigs, the least they can do is label," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the food industry, announced the beginning of a 90-day public comment period Thursday, a step in the process toward declaring products from cloned animals safe to eat. The public comment period will end April 2.
After consumer and industry groups weigh in, the FDA will decide whether to lift a voluntary moratorium on cloned meat and dairy products for consumers. Federal officials say it's possible that cloned food will be in the food supply by the end of 2007.
A preliminary FDA risk assessment "has determined that meat and milk from clones and their offspring are as safe as food we eat every day," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
This isn't the first time the FDA has supported cloned food; it also released a preliminary risk assessment in October 2003.
An animal clone is a genetic copy of an animal—similar to identical twins but born at different times, according to the FDA.
FDA officials said there are only a few hundred cloned cattle, swine and goats in the United States. It costs about $20,000 to produce a clone, making it unlikely that those clones would be marketed for the grill. Most cloned food would come from the offspring of cloned animals, Sundlof said. But when clones reach a certain age and are no longer useful for reproduction, they could be butchered.
Some industry and most consumer groups have decried the move, raising ethical and labeling concerns. Kimbrell called animal cloning in its current state a "lose-lose technology." He said it hurts consumers, cloned animals and the dairy and meat industries. If the FDA approves the sale of cloned food, it could injure exporting markets, he said.
Polls have shown that the public opposes animal cloning. According to a Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology poll, 64 percent of respondents said this year that they were uncomfortable with cloned animals as a source of food.
In December, a bipartisan group of seven senators—Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.—sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services calling for more input on cloned food. "Clearly, consumers are not clamoring for this new food technology," the letter said. The senators also said that research shows lifting the moratorium would result in a 15 percent drop in the purchase of U.S. dairy products.
But Will Hueston, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, said he thinks the controversy will die down with time. The public generally fears anything new that they don't know much about, he said.
For now, much of the concern is over whether consumers will know what they're getting. The FDA hasn't decided whether to require labeling, although it's likely it won't, according to Sundlof.
Cloning is a niche-market technology, and it will be up to individual companies whether they want to market cloned food, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. "It remains to be seen whether dairy farmers will choose to use it," said president and CEO Connie Tipton.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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