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Cloned cows and pigs may be sold next year

Meat and milk from cloned pigs, cows and goats may reach US groceries as soon as next year after regulators determined that they don't pose risks to consumers.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed on Thursday that cloned animal products be cleared for sale based on a four-year review of data showing they are as safe to eat as natural-born goods. While the agency won't make a final decision before getting public feedback, officials said the review found no scientific basis for requiring cloned products to carry separate labels. „We based our decision on looking at the health of the animal,” said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, in a conference call on Thursday.
„If this technology were going to introduce any hazards into the food supply, we ought to see some of those health effects occurring in the animal clones.” Sundlof said it is „conceivable” that a final decision could be made before the end of 2007, making the US the first country to approve the sale of cloned animal products. The FDA asked producers to continue adhering to a 5-year-old voluntary agreement to keep cloned animals and their offspring out of the food supply during the public comment period.

US consumers spend $90 billion a year on dairy goods and $71.2 billion on beef, according to industry estimates. Meat and dairy producers urged the FDA to be cautious, citing polls suggesting that many Americans disapprove of cloning and are wary of buying food that may have come from a lab. Sales of US milk and cheese may fall 15% if the US allows products from clones, according to estimates from the Washington-based International Dairy Foods Association. „People need to trust their milk products,” said Susan Ruland, an association spokeswoman, in a December 26 telephone interview.
„There's no indication that farmers are rushing to use this technology.” Her group's members include Dean Foods Co., the top US milk producer, and Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket chain. The American Meat Institute, also in Washington, said in a statement that while cloning has the potential to improve the quality of food products, the government should help inform consumers about how the technology works.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and six other senators from both political parties also urged federal officials in a December 11 letter to seek more input from the public about cloned animal products. Consumers, producers and other interested parties will have 90 days to comment after the FDA publishes its draft risk assessment, risk-management plan and guidance to the industry in the Federal Register on January 2. The documents were placed on advance display on Thursday. There are only „a few hundred” clones now among the nation's livestock, Sundlof said during the agency's conference call, and the impact of allowing the sale of cloned cows, pigs and goats would be „quite small.”
The agency said there isn't enough data to clear sales of cloned sheep. The FDA first backed the safety of eating cloned animals in an October 2003 draft risk assessment, citing a report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences. Two FDA researchers repeated that conclusion in a study in the January 1 Theriogenology journal. Regulators said in on Thursday's reports that their review found no increased health risks to animals involved in cloning compared with those associated with commonly used assisted reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization.

Cloning has been a matter of public fascination and debate since Scottish scientists announced in 1997 that they had successfully created a copy of a sheep named Dolly. Clones are made by transferring genetic material from an adult cell into an egg whose nucleus has been removed. Scientists then stimulate cell division in a lab until the cloned embryo is ready to be implanted into a female host animal.
Biotechnology companies developing cloning technology, such as closely held ViaGen Inc., say it offers a way to make more of the best-quality animals, improving consistency and quantity among herds. „This technology is the first time that an animal breeder has been able to take a proven animal and make a genetic copy,” said Mark Walton, president of Austin, Texas-based ViaGen, in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Conventional producers may be unwilling to move toward genetically modified meat and milk for fear of an international backlash against what critics call „Frankenstein foods.” Some countries require special labels for genetically modified foods and may be unwilling to accept US exports of these products. The FDA has previously dealt with concerns about genetic engineering in food crops, such as rice and corn. The agency said in August that lab-grown grains were detected in commercial rice samples and didn't pose safety concerns to food or animal feed.
In April 2005, regulators vouched for the safety of small amounts of genetically engineered corn detected in food. While there has been strong resistance to the use of clones, or exact genetic reproductions, in agriculture, US farmers have embraced genetically modified crops since their introduction a decade ago. Genetic modification involves inserting foreign genes into DNA to confer a desirable characteristic.  About 61% of corn seeds planted in the US this year were modified to resist bugs, herbicides or both, up from 52% in 2005, according to the Department of Agriculture.
About 89% of soybean seeds and 83% of cotton seeds were modified to resist herbicides. William Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University, said consumers in focus groups he has led weren't well-informed about cloning and may become more receptive to these products as they learn more about them. „People haven't thought about it deeply,” Hallman said on Wednesday in a telephone interview. „The FDA can resolve the science question, but the big question of whether this will be accepted depends on what people decide on the ethics of cloning and animal welfare issues.” (Bloomberg)