TUESDAY, Jan. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Food products such as meat and milk that come from cloned animals are as safe to eat as foods from conventionally bred animals, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday.
The announcement seemingly lifts the last government barrier to the sale of meat, milk and other food products from cloned cattle, swine, goats and their offspring.
However, food producers suggested they would move slowly before embracing the controversial technology, to gauge consumer reaction to the possibility of eating foods from cloned animals and their progeny.
"Meat and milk from cattle, swine and goat clones are as safe as food we eat every day," Dr. Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's director of the Center of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said during a teleconference Tuesday.
"USDA [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] fully supports and agrees with the FDA final assessment. Meat and milk from cloned cattle, swine and goats, and their offspring, pose no safety concern, and these products are no different than food from conventionally bred animals," added Bruce I. Knight, Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the USDA.
Knight noted there are only about 600 animal clones in the United States, and most of these are breeding animals. "So, few clones will ever arrive at the marketplace," he said.
The announcement reaffirms the FDA's decision almost four years ago that food from cloned animals and their offspring was safe. The agency said additional studies confirmed its initial finding.
"Following extensive review, the risk assessment did not identify any unique risks for human food from cattle, swine or goat clones, and concluded that there is sufficient information to determine that food from cattle, swine and goat clones is as safe to eat as that from their more conventionally bred counterparts," the agency said in a statement.
The FDA noted there isn't enough scientific information to say that foods from clones of other animals -- specifically sheep -- are safe for human consumption.
However, at least one food-industry group said it was going to measure consumer response before starting to promote products from cloned animals.
"We appreciate FDA's careful review of the science surrounding cloning," James H. Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute, said in a statement. "Clearly, however, the cloning of animals is a new technology, and our members will evaluate it, as well as consumer attitudes, very carefully."
"The meat industry has a history of analyzing the science surrounding technology and striving to meet consumer demand regarding our products," Hodges added. "We intend to do so going forward."
And several large companies -- including dairy giant Dean Foods Co. and Hormel Foods Corp. -- have said they have no plans to sell milk or meat from cloned animals because of consumer concerns, the Associated Press reported.
The FDA isn't requiring labeling or any other additional measures for food from cattle, swine or goat clones, or their offspring, because food derived from these sources doesn't present a safety problem, Sundlof said.
If a producer wanted to voluntarily label a product as "clone-free," each request would be considered on a "case-by-case basis" to make sure such claims were truthful, agency officials said in a statement.
Food producers have voluntarily withheld cloned animals from the market pending the FDA's decision, which is basically an advisory opinion. It wasn't immediately clear Tuesday if that moratorium would end immediately -- or if other federal agencies must weigh in first, the AP reported.
The FDA said cloned animals would primarily be used for breeding because of the expense involved in creating a clone -- estimated at $13,500 for one cow. Agency officials said it would probably take several years for offspring of clones to enter the marketplace.
Even then, it's not clear how many producers -- or consumers -- would embrace the idea.
A 2006 survey by the Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy at the University of Maryland found that one-third of adults said they wouldn't consume milk or meat from cloned animals, even if the FDA determined it was safe.
In its statement, the FDA explained that an animal clone is a genetic copy of a donor animal, similar to an identical twin, but born at a different time. Cloning is not the same as genetic engineering, which involves altering, adding or deleting DNA. Because of the cost factors involved with cloning, such animals are intended for use as elite breeding animals to introduce desirable traits into herds more rapidly than would be possible using conventional breeding, the statement said.
Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, said the FDA's "decision to allow the sale of meat and milk from cloned animals leaves consumers at risk and releases another questionable technology into the food supply."
"While more complete research is needed on this technology, there is still an underlying objection from consumers based on ethical and animal welfare concerns," Wenonah Hauter, the group's executive director, said in a prepared statement. "More than 150,000 people submitted comments to FDA earlier this year opposing animal food cloning. But despite widespread public disapproval, FDA is not planning to require labeling of products from cloned animals, keeping already wary consumers in the dark."
Last week, the European Union's Food Safety Authority issued a report concluding that meat and milk from cloned animals is probably safe. But there is "only limited data available" on the whole issue of cloning animals, so further consultation with scientists was urged by the safety agency, the AP reported.
"Based on current knowledge, there is no expectation that clones or their progeny would introduce any new food safety risks compared with conventionally bred animals," the wire service quoted the European Union preliminary report as saying.
For more on the cloning decision, visit the FDA.
SOURCES: Jan. 15, 2008, statement, American Meat Institute, Washington, D.C.; Jan. 15, 2008, teleconference with Stephen Sundlof, D.V.M., Ph.D., director, Center of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Bruce I. Knight, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs; Jan. 15, 2008, news release, Food & Water Watch, Washington, D.C.