Milk and meat from some cloned animals are safe to eat, the Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday in a draft ruling that brings the controversial technology closer to American grocery carts.
If given final approval, the ruling would allow for the sale of food made from cloned cattle, pigs and goats, but not sheep, in the United States for the first time.
The agency said it would be unlikely to recommend special labels for food made from clones, which are genetic twins of donor animals, but would not decide on the labeling issue until it collects comments from the public over the next 90 days.
"No unique risks for human food consumption were identified in cattle, swine or goat clones," it said.
The FDA did not have enough evidence to give the same assurance on sheep clones, but it did vouch for food made from clones' offspring, which many believe would account for most of the clone-related food making its way onto dinner tables.
Making clones of animals works by taking cells from an adult and fusing them with other cells before implanting them in a surrogate mother. A relatively small amount of cloned livestock now exists in the United States.
The FDA stressed it will maintain its current moratorium on the food until a final ruling is issued.
"This does not end the agency's review of cloning. We view this as the beginning of the agency's interaction with the public on this issue," Stephen Sundlof, an FDA veterinarian, said in a conference call with reporters.
Comments will be accepted until April 2 but there was no word on when a final ruling would be made.
MANY CONSUMERS NOT CONVINCED
Advocates of livestock cloning hope the technology will help produce more milk and lean, tender meat by creating more disease-resistant animals. They insist it is perfectly safe and hope shoppers will believe that as they learn more.
But some consumer and religious groups strongly oppose the idea, arguing that scientists do not know enough about the effects of cloning on nutrition or biology. They also want more time for public debate on the ethics of cloning.
The issue could make waves for exporters of U.S. farm goods, who have run into problems when prohibited genetically engineered crops made their way into the food supply.
Opinion polls suggest shoppers would be wary. More than half of consumers in a recent survey by the International Food Information Council said they were unlikely to buy food made from cloned animals, no matter what the government says.
"It's important that FDA is the barometer for making decisions on the basis of safety, health and nutrition," said Dave Schmidt, the council's president. "Then it's essentially how the marketplace will react."
While affected industries welcomed government reassurances about food safety, they remain keenly aware that supermarket decisions of consumers keep them in business.
"FDA should be cautious about allowing meat and milk from cloned animals to be introduced into the marketplace if most consumers are unwilling to accept the technology," the American Meat Institute said in a statement.
Cost is another factor.
"Cloning, I would think, would be too expensive for it to compete in the mainstream marketplace," said Len Steiner, owner of Steiner Consulting Group, a food industry consultant.
Groups like the Consumer Federation of America called the FDA's step premature, saying it has not sufficiently vetted the technology's safety or ethical and religious issues.
"All those concerns are really being swept under the rug," said Joe Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety, which opposes some biotechnology.