After years of debate, the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday declared that food from cloned animals and their progeny is safe to eat, clearing the way for milk and meat derived from copies of prized dairy cows, steers and hogs to be sold at the grocery store.
The decision was hailed by cloning companies and some farmers, who have been pushing for government approval in hopes of turning cloning into a routine agricultural tool. Because clones are costly, they will be used primarily for breeding, not for producing milk, hamburgers and pork chops.
“This is a huge milestone,” said Mark Walton, president of ViaGen, a leading livestock cloning company in Austin, Texas.
Farmers had long observed a voluntary moratorium on the sale of clones and their offspring into the food supply. The FDA on Tuesday effectively lifted that for clone offspring. But another government agency, the Agriculture Department, asked farmers to continue withholding clones themselves from the food supply, saying the department wanted time to allay concerns among retailers and overseas trading partners.
“We are very cognizant we have a global environment as it pertains to movement of agricultural products,” said Bruce I. Knight, undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs. He said it was his goal to have the transition last months, not years.
Animal breeding takes time, so even with Tuesday’s actions, it is likely to be several years before products from the offspring of clones are available at the grocery store in appreciable quantity.
While acknowledging that consumer acceptance remains a hurdle, proponents of cloning technology say it could have a major impact on the livestock industry by providing meat and milk that is better and more consistent.
“When you buy a box of Cheerios in New York and one in Champaign, Illinois, you know they are going to be the same,” said Jon Fisher, president and owner of Prairie State Semen, in Illinois. “By shortening the genetic pool using clones, you can do a similar thing.”
“It could improve the quality of meat in the supermarket,” Fisher added. “It depends if customers allow it.”
Consumer groups immediately lambasted the FDA’s report, saying that the science remains inadequate and that many consumers oppose cloning for religious or ethical reasons. Some members of Congress had sought to delay a decision until further studies were completed.
“It flies in the face of Congress’ wishes. It flies in the face of consumer wishes,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, the advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports.
But Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said food from cloned animals was “indistinguishable” from that of conventionally bred animals.
“It is beyond our imagination to even have a theory for why the food is unsafe,” he said.