As soon as next year, milk from cloned cows and meat from cloned cattle and pigs could start showing up on grocery shelves, but are food products from cloned animals safe?
The answer in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences is: probably. But some questions persist and there is wide agreement that studies are needed.
There are scores of cloned animals across the country and, as the technology improves and becomes less expensive, their numbers could grow considerably.
Why? Consider dairy farmer Greg Wiles of Williamsport, Md. His pride and joy — a top ranked Holstein dairy cow named Zita — died last year. But, before her death, Wiles had her cloned. Now, he has two carbon copies of Zita and he can have more created indefinitely.
Wiles hopes the clones will be as productive as Zita, but otherwise, he says they appear no different than the rest of his herd. "They act, walk, eat just like any other cow that you see on a farm," he said
Farmers such as Wiles are reassured by the National Academy of Sciences report.
Eric Hallerman of Virginia Polytechnic and State University, a member of the panel said, "We had a fairly low level of concern regarding food safety of cloned animals."
But the report acknowledges that there have been no studies actually comparing food products from cloned animals to those of non-cloned animals. And, some new questions are being raised.
Genes Are Altered in the Cloning Process
Although cloned animals look alike, new research indicates that a number of genes are altered in the cloning process. No one knows what effect that might have on food safety.
Michael Hansen, a biologist with Consumers Union, says, "It's theoretically possible … that there could be, through an unexpected pathway, some kind of toxin produced," said Michael Hansen, a biologist with Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine Consumer Reports.
Hallerman and others doubt that, saying the effects would probably be more innocuous, such as a change in fat or protein content of milk or meat.
Jon Fisher, a hog producer in Champaign, Ill., is even more dubious. Fisher has five cloned pigs and says his family has been eating bacon produced by another one.
"We have no hesitation about the product or the safety of the meat that we are eating," he said. Looks like bacon, smells like bacon, tastes like bacon — it's bacon.
The Food and Drug Administration, however, does have some hesitation. For now, it is keeping meat and milk from cloned animals off the market, saying it wants to be sure they're safe.
"We would have to be secure in the fact that this had no material impact on the quality of the food before we would allow cloned animals to be used for that purpose," said Stephen Sundlof, who heads the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
The FDA is expected to issue guidelines early next year, spelling out procedures for establishing the safety of food products from cloned animals. Still unclear is whether those products would have to be labeled — the only way that consumers would be able to choose whether or not to buy them.