THURSDAY, Dec. 28, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. regulators released a draft document on Thursday that could pave the way for food from cloned animals to dress Americans' dinner tables.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration staffers stressed their confidence in the food's safety, yet emphasized that a voluntary moratorium on such products remains in place.
"Our draft risk assessment concludes that food and milk from [cloned animals and their offspring] is as safe to eat as the food we eat every day," Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said at a Thursday news conference. "Cloning poses no unique risks to animals that have not already been seen with other assisted-reproductive technologies currently used widely in agriculture and even in natural mating."
If meat and milk from cloned adult cattle, pigs and goats, and their offspring, were eventually allowed in the United States, it would be the first country to do so. Due to limited data on sheep clones, the FDA is not recommending that sheep clones be used for human food.
The public comment period on the FDA's risk-assessment document will last 90 days, until April 2, 2007, after which time the FDA will review and assess the comments. "It's not inconceivable that a decision will be made before the end of [next] year but there are no promises at this point," Sundlof said.
Critics were quick to fault the FDA's reasoning.
"The FDA is saying that because there are so few cloned animals with so little data, their own confidence that this food is safe is low," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. "If you don't have the science, you don't have facts, you haven't done your homework. It's a rush to judgment, and it's really not in the best interest of consumers."
What's more, the FDA's ability to police the field is like "Katrina on a plate," Kimbrell added. "We have a federal agency that is understaffed and underfinanced. We have no real confidence in the agency to do the job."
Don't expect to see meat and milk from cloned animals in grocery stores any time soon, however.
"The release of this draft document does not lift the moratorium on foods from clones or their offspring," Sundlof said. "The release does not end the agency's review of cloning. Instead we view this as the beginning of interaction with the public on this issue."
A voluntary moratorium on selling these products has been in place for several years.
Proponents of the cloning technology say it would be used primarily for breeding purposes. Cloning lets farmers and ranchers make copies of exceptional animals.
Even if the FDA decides on cloned foods within a year, it would be much longer before food from cloned animals makes its way to grocery stores and dining rooms. Most of the food from cloned animals will actually be from the offspring (naturally begotten) of the original cloned animals. Most of the cloned animals would be used for breeding purposes until they reached old age, at which time they, too, might enter the food supply.
Currently there are only a small number of cloned farm animals in the United States. According to the Washington Post, there are 150 cloned cows out of 9 million dairy cows in the United States, which each clone costing about $20,000 to produce. The expense alone should keep the number of cloned animals down.
The draft risk assessment concluded a five-year review of the available science on meat and milk from clones of adult cattle, pigs and goats, as well as their offspring.
Although no testing was done on humans, the evidence thus far showed that cloned animals and offspring of cloned animals were indistinguishable from conventionally bred and raised animals, Sundlof said. Analyses extended down to the cellular and molecular levels.
"We have looked very, very closely at any potential hazard and can't find any that might be harmful to the public," Sundlof said. "We feel very confident with the results of this food report."
No decision has yet been made as to how food from cloned animals would be labeled for the consumer, and no labeling may be required, Sundlof said.
"Unless there's some compelling reason to require labeling, something different about the food or something was taken out or put in, the FDA would not have the authority to require labeling," he explained. "If we felt that the food contained any introduced substances that would be harmful, labeling would be in order, but the draft does not find that that is the case."
For more on animal cloning, visit the FDA.