With the government set to allow food from cloned animals onto the market — and consumers not yet convinced it's safe — meat and dairy producers are promoting an industry-led system to track cloned livestock.
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to give final go-ahead for the sale of cloned meat and milk before the end of the year.
Food producers have agreed not to sell those products under a voluntary moratorium, though the FDA has said cloned animals are scientifically identical to their natural counterparts.
But that conclusion hasn't convinced shoppers — or meat and dairy producers who fear anxiety about cloned products could dampen sales.
Dallas-based Dean Foods Co., which owns the Land O'Lakes and Horizon Organic brands, already said it will not sell milk from cloned cows. And a spokeswoman for meat producer Hormel Foods Corp. said Wednesday it has no plans to sell meat from cloned animals.
A September 2006 poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 64 percent of Americans were uncomfortable with animal cloning. And research by the International Dairy Foods Association estimated the $20 billion dairy market could fall 15 percent if cloned milk is introduced.
In a move to head-off such a backlash, milk producers joined their peers in the meat and grocery industries to endorse a system to identify cloned animals.
"Obviously, there are some public concerns about allowing milk from cloned cattle into the supply chain, and that's why we're supporting the tracking of these animals," said Chris Galen, Vice President for the National Milk Producers Federation.
Under the plan, Viagen Inc. and Trans Ova Genetics — the two primary U.S. cloning companies — will attach an electronic identification tag to each cloned cow or pig sold.
Buyers must make a financial deposit with the cloning company which will only be returned after they verify the death or sale of the animal to a food producer. These customers must sign a pledge to market the animal as a clone.
The high cost of cloning means the vast majority of animals will never make it directly to the table, said Trans Ova Genetics President David Faber.
After making a $10,000 to $20,000 investment on one of these animals, it doesn't make economic sense to put them into the food supply, Faber said.
"The farmers and producers who use this technology are mainly interested in capturing genetic value to produce higher quality animals," he said.
Trans Ova and Viagen have already produced more than 650 cloned animals for U.S. breeders, including copies of prize-winning cows and rodeo bulls.
The companies said they don't expect to produce more than a few hundred cloned animals per year in the near future.
One thing the companies won't be able to do is identify the offspring of cloned animals. As Viagen President Mark Walton explained, "the database won't track cloned offspring because they are not clones. They are the same as every other animal ever produced from two parents."
The plan received the backing from trade groups representing meat producers like Tyson Foods Inc. and food processors like Procter & Gamble Co.
However, the initiative did little to quiet complaints from consumer advocates and lawmakers who say the American public is not prepared for clone encounters in their local grocery store.
"It is much too soon for this controversial technology to be unleashed in the marketplace, especially without requiring it to be labeled," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Food & Water Watch.
The FDA requires labeling of ingredients and additives that alter the nutritional content of foods. Since cloned animals are indistinguishable from naturally produced animals, the agency is not expected to require that they be labeled, though companies may decide to voluntarily label their products.
Lawmakers also pressed the FDA to delay lifting the moratorium on cloned foods until more studies are complete.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., added last-minute language to the government appropriations bill Tuesday directing the FDA to study the economic and trade impact of allowing cloned products on the market.
While the legislation does not explicitly bar the FDA from publishing the final assessment, it could pressure the agency to delay its release.