By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006
Consumer advocates and others have complained bitterly in recent years that the Food and Drug Administration has veered from its scientific roots, making decisions on controversial matters -- such as the emergency contraceptive "Plan B" -- on political rather than scientific grounds.
Now comes a test of just how rational the public wants the FDA to be.
Later this week, the agency is expected to release a formal recommendation that milk and meat from cloned animals should be allowed on grocery store shelves. The long-awaited decision comes as polling data to be released this week show that the public continues to have little appetite for such food, with many people saying the FDA should keep it off the market.
The FDA decision is based on a substantial cache of data from rigorous studies, all of which have concluded that milk and meat from cloned animals is virtually identical to such products from conventional animals. Scientists have also been unable to detect health problems in laboratory animals raised on clonal food.
By contrast, studies have found that consumers' discomfort with the idea of eating food from clones is largely based on vague emotions. Indeed, polls have repeatedly found that the public understands little about what cloning really is.
That raises the issue: Should decisions such as this one be based solely on science, or should officials take into account public sensitivities, which may be unscientific but are undeniably real?
Regulators and leaders of the handful of companies poised to enter the cloned-food market say this is a chance for the government and the public to hew to the facts.
"There is no science-based reason" to withhold clone-derived meat or milk from the market or to require that they be labeled as such, FDA scientists conclude in a report in the Jan. 1 issue of the journal Theriogenology.
But others say people cannot help but be emotional about food, and those feelings deserve consideration -- if for no other reason than because ignoring them could weaken confidence in the food supply.
"There is more to this issue than just food safety," said Susan Ruland of the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents such major companies as Kraft Foods and Dannon. The organization's member companies are concerned that sales of U.S. dairy products could drop by 15 percent or more if the FDA allows the sale of meat and milk from clones.
"There's a real trust in milk as a wholesome provider of core nutrition in your diet," Ruland said. "You don't want to fool around with that."
Some farm-state legislators share that concern. In a Dec. 11 letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and six other senators asked that the FDA submit its plan to a scientific review board and take other steps to get more public input. As of Friday, Leavitt had not responded.
Scientists make clones from single cells taken from animals they want to replicate. The process involves growing a cell into an embryo in a laboratory dish, then transferring the embryo to the womb of a surrogate mother animal. The resulting critter is a genetic twin of the animal that donated the starter cell.
Relatively few cloned farm animals exist; there are an estimated 150 clones out of the nation's 9 million dairy cows. But biotechnology companies are gearing up to clone farmers' tastiest cattle and pigs and most productive dairy cows -- a move they say will help consumers get reliably high-quality meat and milk products, day after day.
A voluntary moratorium, imposed by the FDA several years ago, has until now kept products from clones and their offspring off the market -- although a few farmers have said they have slaughtered and sold some offspring of clones, having grown tired of waiting for a final decision from the FDA.
Backed by recent safety studies, the FDA is poised to release a "draft risk assessment" concluding that such products should be allowed on the market. The public will be able to submit comments before a final policy is implemented.
Timed to match the FDA action, two polls relating to food from clones are slated for release this week. Each involved about 1,000 American adults.
One poll, commissioned by the University of Maryland's Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy, asked people what they would do if the FDA determined it is safe to eat meat and milk from clones and their offspring. One-third said they would continue buying those foods, one-third said they would "consider" doing so, and one-third said they would not buy those foods again.
The second poll, by the American Anti-Vivisection Society, which opposes cloning on animal-welfare grounds, found that two-thirds of Americans -- and three-quarters of women -- "disapprove" of cloning animals for food.
Moreover, about two-thirds of those who said they approved said they would disapprove if they learned that cloning involved "animal suffering." Many pregnancies involving clones end in miscarriages or, less often, in the deaths of newborns. That suggests that although animal welfare is not under FDA jurisdiction, animal-welfare considerations could become a wedge issue in the cloning debate.
But polling data on cloning should be served with several grains of salt, experts said. For one thing, the public is woefully ignorant about the science and therefore is subject to being swayed by subtle differences, intentional or not, in how questions are asked.
Even the word "cloning," difficult to avoid in such polls, can be a loaded term.
"For many, the word 'cloning' brings to mind negative images evocative of science fiction," according to an analysis of public opinion efforts regarding animal cloning, compiled by William Hallman and Sarah Condry of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University.
In the University of Maryland survey, nearly half of those polled asserted that it was not yet possible to clone farm animals for food. In another sign of misunderstanding, 59 percent said cloning involves genetic modification, when in fact clones are genetically identical to founder animals. (The FDA has said that food derived from genetically modified animals will have to pass more stringent safety tests than have been demanded for food from clones.)
That lack of knowledge means attitudes are still malleable, and hearts and minds can still be mollified, if not entirely won, said David Richards, a senior vice president at KRC Research, a District-based opinion research firm.
"For the most part, people don't know this is a reality yet," Richards said, "so their initial reaction is, 'Whoa, we've made this much progress? What's going on here?' But once it's introduced into the food supply, my guess is that if there are no negatives that come up, then you won't hear much about it."