Clone-Generated Milk, Meat May Be Approved

Elvis, a calf cloned by ViaGen Inc. of Austin and groomed for breeding.
Elvis, a calf cloned by ViaGen Inc. of Austin and groomed for breeding. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to rule soon that milk from cloned animals and meat from their offspring are safe to eat, raising the question of whether Americans are ready to welcome one of modern biology's most controversial achievements to the dinner table.

Hundreds of cloned pigs, cows and other animals are already living on farms around the country, as companies and livestock producers experiment and await a decision from the FDA.

The agricultural industry has observed a voluntary FDA moratorium on using the products of clones, but it has recently become clear that a few offspring of cloned pigs and cows are already trickling into the food supply. Many in agriculture believe such genetic copies are the next logical step in improving the nation's livestock.

Consumer groups counter that many Americans are likely to be revolted by the idea of serving clone milk to their children or tossing meat from the progeny of clones onto the backyard grill. This "yuck factor," as it's often called, has come to light repeatedly in public opinion surveys. Asked earlier this year in a poll by the International Food Information Council whether they would willingly buy meat, milk and eggs that come from clones if the FDA declared them to be safe, 63 percent of consumers said no.

Yet mounting scientific evidence suggests there is little cause for alarm, at least on food-safety grounds. Studies have shown that meat and milk from clones can't be distinguished from that of normal animals, although work is not complete and researchers say that clones do suffer subtle genetic abnormalities.

While milk from clones might reach grocery shelves, clones themselves are not likely to be eaten, since they cost thousands of dollars apiece to produce. They'd be used as breeding stock, so the real question is whether their sexually produced offspring would be safe.

The FDA has been promising a policy for three years, but hasn't produced a final version, and some biotechnology companies involved in cloning have run out of cash while waiting. Weary livestock producers have dubbed the FDA the "Foot Dragging Administration."

The FDA declined requests for an interview. In response to written questions, Stephen F. Sundlof, chief of veterinary medicine at the agency, said the FDA "really can't provide a reliable estimate on the time frame" for releasing a policy.

But there are signs the agency is preparing to move. Lester Crawford, before he abruptly resigned Sept. 23 as FDA commissioner -- for apparently unrelated reasons -- said the agency was drafting a formal scientific paper outlining its conclusions. Speaking at a conference earlier this year, John Matheson, an FDA scientist working on the issue, said the policy was under review at higher levels of the Bush administration.

"We're spending a lot of time briefing these folks, trying to make them comfortable with the technology," Matheson said. "I think that's a microcosm of what you're going to see in the public when the decision goes out."

When the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, was announced in 1997, American farmers and ranchers were as shocked as anyone. But by now, thousands of farm families have seen clones at agricultural fairs and grown comfortable with the idea.

The producers of prime pigs and cattle shown in contests at those fairs have been among the first to embrace cloning. Show animals represent only a small portion of the food supply, but the finest are sometimes used as breeding stock to upgrade food herds. Companies have been selling clones to some show-animal producers for years, practicing their cloning techniques for the day when they can put them to use in the far larger market for food animals.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company