WASHINGTON -- Meat and milk from cloned farm animals are safe to eat, the government said yesterday in a move that paves the way for the sale of the food.
But limits on production are expected to keep the products from reaching grocer's shelves for years, and continuing consumer skepticism prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ask yesterday for an indefinite delay so it can educate shoppers before they face the choice.
After reviewing numerous scientific studies, the Food and Drug and Administration decided that food derived from cloned cows, pigs, goats and their offspring is as safe to eat as products from conventionally bred livestock.
"The likelihood that anything would go wrong from a food safety standpoint is unimaginably small," said Stephen Sendoff, director of the FDA's food safety division.
Industry has been holding off selling food products from clones since 2001. Bruce I. Knight, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, expected a voluntary moratorium on products from the 600 clones now on farms to continue for several months.
Even after the ban is lifted, it is unlikely that pork chops and steaks from cloned livestock will hit store shelves. The technology is too expensive - $15,000 or more per animal - to use clones for anything but breeding.
The moratorium doesn't apply to the offspring of clones, but given that there are 200 million meat- and milk-producing farm animals in the United States, it will probably take several years before there are enough progeny to have a significant impact on the food supply.
What's more, many in the food industry want to wait before introducing food derived from clones. Food makers and sellers fear a trade backlash. They also worry that the possibility will scare away American consumers in the same way that use of hormones to increase milk production spurred many customers to turn to organic products.
One organic food booster, Rachel Griffith, said she will shun meat from grocers and try to buy directly from local farmers, so she knows it comes from conventionally bred animals. Griffith also said she'd be careful about which organic milk brand she buys to avoid any from clones or their offspring.
"I have two children - two young, growing children - and I want them to get healthier, not sicker, after eating their meals," said Griffith, a 41-year-old health magazine saleswoman who lives in Milan, Ill., on the Iowa border.
Cloning supporters hope the FDA's respected imprimatur, along with a growing appreciation that the technology doesn't involve genetic modification, will persuade most consumers to view cloning as simply the latest farm technology. Yet liberal interest groups, which had been urging the government to delay a decision given the public's unease, showed no signs of backing off their opposition on scientific and animal welfare grounds.
Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, urged Congress to pass legislation requiring the labeling of food from clones and further study of the long-term safety.
Perhaps most angered by the FDA's decision were congressional opponents, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. The Maryland Democrat has been pushing legislation to delay action.
"If we discover a problem with cloned food after it is in our food supply, and it's not labeled, the FDA won't be able to recall it like they did Vioxx - the food will already be tainted," Mikulski said in a statement, referring to the drug removed from the market in 2004 after reports of serious side effects, including deaths, among users.
Cloning would be a boon to dairy farmers looking for the best milk producers and slaughterhouses seeking cows, goats and pigs yielding the highest quality meat.
Up until now, industry has used other reproductive technologies, such as artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, to obtain prized traits. Through cloning, they would get identical copies of the most valuable animals.
Carol L. Keefer, an animal sciences expert at the University of Maryland who helped the FDA make its determination, said scientific studies didn't find safety problems from cloning, and the country's food inspection system would be able to sort out any unhealthy animals derived from cloning just as it does for conventionally bred animals.
"The issue of food safety is being brought up by some groups because they object to the process, but that's a separate issue. They should focus on those concerns and not on that of the safety," Keefer said.
Once the FDA indicated in December that it would give the go-ahead, biotechnology companies squared off against opponents behind the scenes. While opponents whispered in the ears of Mikulski and other lawmakers, biotechnology companies waged a public relations campaign aimed at changing public perceptions of "Frankenfoods."
Most recently, the two leading cloning companies, ViaGen and Trans Ova Genetics, sought to ease minds by developing a system for tracking clones as they make their way from farms to processing plants to stores. Groceries could tell customers whether a product came from a clone, but the system doesn't account for food made from the offspring of clones, the probable sources.
A local industry group, the MdBio Division of the Tech Council of Maryland, tried to blunt Mikulski's outspoken opposition in a Dec. 20 letter warning that delaying approval could "risk slowing the future growth of the Maryland biotechnology industry."
USDA moved to extend the voluntary moratorium in just the past several days, according to Steve Mower, director of marketing for the Cyagra animal cloning company, and Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization trade group.
"We don't think it was necessary, but we think it is manageable," Greenwood said in a conference call with reporters.