WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce today that meat, milk and other food from cloned animals is safe and that sales could begin within months.
The agency has determined after a five-year review that food from cloned livestock is as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred cows and pigs and that the food should not require labels indicating its origin, according to sources close to the FDA.
After soliciting public comment for 60 days and then reviewing it, the federal agency could drop its long-standing request that farmers and ranchers refrain from selling food from clones.
But an eventual move to encourage sales, far from ending the matter, probably would intensify public debate about the science, ethics and morality of cloning as the practice begins to affect consumers.
Experts say it would likely take years for sales of food from clones to begin in earnest, because the technology's high cost could make it prohibitive for many dairy farmers and livestock producers. Dairy farmers say they can't afford the $15,000 cost for each clone. And livestock producers would prefer to slaughter the naturally born offspring of their expensive clones, which could mean a delay of four years or more before the offspring are ready to market.
Yet a few hundred cattle among the nation's 9 million have already been cloned and could be used to produce some food sooner.
"This isn't the end of the process, even from FDA's perspective. But clearly it's an important step determining whether the product is safe," said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
Consumer groups sharply criticized the FDA's expected move, saying the potential for sales would scare shoppers who will have no way of knowing what kind of animal their cuts of beef and cartons of milk came from.
Recent opinion polls have found that the majority of those surveyed harbor concerns about consuming food made from cloned livestock. For that reason, many food companies are leery.
Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, said consumer groups plan to ask food producers to avoid using clone products and to request that food sellers refuse to sell them. They also will ask federal health officials to consider the moral and ethical implications before encouraging sales.
"It's something that consumers don't want and the industry doesn't want," Mendelson said. "Why reward a couple of cloning companies at the expense of the American consumer?"
Anticipating the FDA announcement, some congressional Democrats have expressed strong concerns and urged the FDA to study the issue further. Last month, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski sent a letter to the agency's director.
"Just because a scientist can manufacture food in the laboratory, should Americans be required to eat it?" the Maryland Democrat wrote. "We do not know enough about the long-term effects of introducing cloned animals, or their offspring, into our food supply."
However, most scientists say the food is safe to eat and that there is no scientific reason for further delay.
"There haven't been any studies or anything to suggest there is anything wrong with the product," said Sanford A. Miller, former director of the FDA's food safety office.
Many in the public, he said, mistakenly confuse cloning with genetic modification.
"There's no change in the gene at all. It's another breeding technology," said Miller, who served on a National Academy of Sciences task force that examined the issue.
Some experts say consumer concerns could subside as understanding of the science grows. William K. Hallman, director of Rutgers University's Food Policy Institute, said his polling shows that Americans' perceptions about the matter are first impressions.
"First impressions can change, so what will happen in the weeks after the FDA's announcement will make a big difference in how people think about this," he said.