The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in a 700-page "draft risk assessment" released this week, says milk and meat from cloned cows, pigs and goats are safe to eat. Coming after five years of study, the FDA announcement that cloned livestock is "virtually indistinguishable" from conventional livestock could make the U.S. the first country to allow products from cloned livestock to be sold in grocery stores.

The announcement doesn't include meat and milk from genetically modified animals, which involves introducing a new gene. A clone is a genetic twin of the original animal that provides the tissue sample from which a cell line is made. Clones are not genetically modified.

Forbes reports FDA officials believe special labels won't be needed for such food products, though a decision on labeling is pending. Because scientists concluded there's no difference between food from clones and food from other animals, "it would be unlikely that FDA would require labeling in those cases," says Stephen F. Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Vet Medicine.

Even with formal approval, it is unlikely consumers will regularly find cloned meat at stores. The New York Times reports an estimated 500 or 600 cloned cows in the U.S., out of approximately 44 million beef and dairy cows. Cloned animals are too expensive to use for food products, upwards of $15,000/animal. Instead, livestock producers seek to clone animals for breeding stock.

David Faber, president of Trans Ova Genetics, a 25-year-old Sioux Center, IA-based firm, called the FDA report: "a milestone in the advancement of breeding and developing superior genetics for food production in the U.S. and around the world."

"The use of cloning technology in beef and dairy reproduction will allow breeders to advance the quality, consistency, health and safety of milk and meat by allowing specific propagation of the genetics that lead to this better product," he said in a statement. "By selecting elite animals and applying cloning technology, breeders can choose animals that naturally produce the quality of milk or meat consumers want, or animals that are more resistant to disease threat.

"The most elite, upper-tier of the genetic pyramid will be cloning candidates, allowing the influence of those genetics to improve breeding herds striving to improve milk and meat production," Faber said.

Trans Ova Genetics provides embryo transfer programs, in-vitro fertilization processes, sexed-semen applications, genetic preservation and cloning technologies.

FDA's announcement, however, brought criticism from consumer groups that argue the science backing the decision is shaky, and citing consumer surveys indicating consumer anxiety over animal cloning, let alone eating them.

"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," Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, told Forbes.

Meanwhile, in the same article, Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, said FDA ignored research that shows cloning results in more animal suffering. Her group plans to ask food companies and supermarkets to refuse to sell food from clones, she said.

However, the Forbes piece says FDA scientists claim that by the time clones reach 6 to 18 months of age, they are 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."

Cloning animals has always been legal, but an FDA-requested voluntary moratorium on the sale of cloned animal products has been in place since 2001 in order to study the effects of milk or meat from such animals. The moratorium will stay in place until the new policy is finalized, which may be as early as the end of next year.

The public has 90 days to comment on draft risk assessment.
-- Alaina Burt and Joe Roybal