WASHINGTON – The U.S. government declared Thursday that food from cloned animals is safe to eat and does not require special labeling.
After more than five years of study, the Food and Drug Administration concluded that cloned livestock is "virtually indistinguishable" from conventional livestock. No identification is needed to judge their safety for the food supply, FDA said.
FDA believes "that meat and milk from cattle, swine and goat clones is as safe to eat as the food we eat every day," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Food from the offspring of cloned animals is equally safe, Sundlof said.
Critics of cloning say the verdict is still out on the safety of food from cloned animals.
"Consumers are going to be having a product that has potential safety issues and has a whole load of ethical issues tied to it, without any labeling," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety.
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, said the FDA is ignoring research that shows cloning results in more deaths and deformed animals than other reproductive technologies.
The consumer federation will ask food companies and supermarkets to refuse to sell food from clones, she said.
"Meat and milk from cloned animals have no benefit for consumers, and consumers don't want them in their foods," Foreman said.
However, FDA scientists said that by the time clones reached 6 to 18 months of age, they were virtually indistinguishable from conventionally bred animals.
Labels should only be used if the health characteristics of a food are significantly altered by how it is produced, said Barb Glenn of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
"The bottom line is, we don't want to misinform consumers with some sort of implied message of difference," Glenn said. "There is no difference. These foods are as safe as foods from animals that are raised conventionally."
Final approval of cloned animals for food is months away; the FDA will accept comments from the public after issuing a draft risk assessment on Thursday.
Those in favor of the technology say it would be used primarily for breeding and not for steak or pork tenderloin.
Cloning lets farmers and ranchers make copies of exceptional animals, such as pigs that fatten rapidly or cows that are superior milk producers.
"It's not a genetically engineered animal; no genes have been changed or moved or deleted," Glenn said. "It's simply a genetic twin that we can then use for future matings to improve the overall health and well-being of the herd."
Thus, consumers would mostly get food from their offspring and not the clones themselves, Glenn said.
Still, some clones would eventually end up in the food supply. As with conventional livestock, a cloned bull or cow that outlived its usefulness would probably wind up at a hamburger plant, and a cloned dairy cow would be milked during her breeding years.
That is unlikely to happen soon, because FDA officials have asked farmers and cloning companies since 2001 to voluntarily keep clones and their offspring out of the food supply. The informal ban would remain in place for several months while FDA accepts comments from the public.
Approval of cloned livestock has taken five years because of pressure from big food companies nervous that consumers might reject milk and meat from cloned animals.
To produce a clone, the nucleus of a donor egg is removed and replaced with the DNA of a cow, pig or other animal. A tiny electric shock coaxes the egg to grow into a copy of the original animal. Cloning companies say it's just another reproductive technology, such as artificial insemination, yet there can be differences between the two because of chance and environmental influences.
Some surveys have shown people to be uncomfortable with food from cloned animals; 64 percent said they were uncomfortable in a September poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonpartisan research group.