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FDA approves cloned food, and braces for backlash

As expected, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled that “meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats …

As expected, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled that “meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats … are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals.”

And, as expected, controversy continues to rage over the very notion that products from clones could take a place at the nation’s meat counters and dairy cases.

On the heels of the FDA’s announcement today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called for continuing a voluntary moratorium on sales of food from clones. Companies doing cloning had agreed to withhold the meat and milk while the FDA deliberated on the safety question.

The USDA official making the call — Bruce Knight, under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs — didn’t say how long the moratorium should continue. A Q&A issued with Knight’s statement said that the USDA needs “a sufficient period of time to prepare so that a smooth and seamless transition into the marketplace can occur.”

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Special labels?
One smoldering argument is the question of whether food from clones should be specially labeled. Anticipating that fight, the FDA said in its announcement that it will not require any labeling. The USDA echoed that decision.

Instead, the FDA said producers of the foods may be able to label their products as “clone-free.” Such labels might be allowed on a case-by-case basis, the FDA said, to ensure that the labels are truthful and not misleading.

The approach would be similar to a compromise government regulators reached years ago during the uproar over milk from cows given a genetically engineered hormone, popularly known as BST, to boost milk output. Dairies that could certify their milk came from herds not treated with BST were able to say so and charge a premium for the milk.

But consumer groups and many bloggers were quick today to denounce any similar compromise over food from clones. The Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., said the FDA’s position “deprives consumers of their right to know about the origins of their food.” A headline in Wired’s blog network chided the FDA’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on Cloned Meat.”

One reason regulators resist the labels is because they aren’t easy to enforce. The FDA says it cannot distinguish between a steak from a cloned steer and one from its conventional counterpart. The same would be true of offspring from clones, which the FDA also cleared for food consumption.

Tracking system
So there would be no simple way of testing meat or milk to determine a label’s truthfulness.

However, cloning companies set the stage for an identification system by pledging in December that they would register cloned animals before they are sold and require the buyers to make the animals’ background available down the marketing line. The system would be voluntary and, thus, not binding on every company that might clone animals.

Organic food networks, in particular, are likely to make use of that tracking system and other strategies for excluding clones from their product lines.

It isn’t U.S. consumers alone who worry the USDA as it tries to ease the fury over cloning. The agency also is wary of the response from international markets where the image of American farm products was battered a decade ago because Japanese and European consumers rejected gene-altered crops. That dispute has quieted but it isn’t forgotten.

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The USDA’s Knight said international customers are among the stakeholders the agency seeks to calm. The agency also proposes to work with the cloning industry’s tracking system to help reassure trading partners they can know whether or not they are buying food from clones.

At this point, the fuss is over a few hundred high-priced breeding animals that aren’t intended to frequent milking barns or see a slaughter house any time soon.

“We understand there are currently only about 600 animal clones in the U.S., and most of them are breeding animals, so few clones will ever arrive in the marketplace,” Knight said.