By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Responding to consumer queasiness about eating meat and drinking milk from cloned animals, and frustrated by continued delays in the government approval process, the nation's two largest cloning companies will today roll out a voluntary program aimed at helping shoppers avoid food from clones.
Meat and milk from the offspring of clones would, however, become part of the general food supply.
The new "supply chain management" system is built on the hope -- supported by a modest amount of data -- that people opposed to consuming meat or milk products that come directly from clones will accept food from their progeny.
The system calls for all cloned farm animals to be registered in a central tracking system and requires farmers who raise them to sign affidavits promising to keep them out of the food supply or to segregate their meat and milk so that other foods can be reliably labeled as "clone-free." Violators would face financial penalties.
Farmers have begun to acquire cloned animals with the expectation that the Food and Drug Administration will soon approve their use. For now, most do not intend to butcher or milk their clones, because the animals are too valuable for such ordinary use. Farmers see the clones as high-quality breeding stock.
But the industry hopes that as costs drop, the market for cloned foods will grow. Its willingness to accept labels on meat and milk stating that the products did not come from clones represents a significant concession to the retail reality that consumers remain uncomfortable with that prospect.
"It's not a safety or health issue; it's a marketing issue," said Mark Walton, president of ViaGen of Austin, which has been waiting years for the FDA to approve the sale of meat from its cloned cattle.
The industry move comes almost exactly a year after the FDA declared that it could find no scientific reason to prohibit the marketing of food from clones and their offspring. But political forces have stalled final approval, and other obstacles emerged this week as Congress crafted language aimed at further delaying FDA action.
An amendment to the Senate version of the farm bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), calls for additional study. Language inserted in the omnibus spending bill, expected to pass last night, also calls for delays.
But the farm bill must be reconciled with a House version, which lacks the delay, in negotiations that will not occur until early next year. And the omnibus bill's provision is nonbinding.
That means the FDA has a small window this holiday season when it could use its authority to finalize last year's draft decision. That document recommended approving the unrestricted sale of milk and meat from both clones and their offspring.
Proponents of approval, including scientists miffed because they believe politics and public opinion have undermined the FDA's scientific review, are raising their profile. The Federation of Animal Science Societies, for example, is running an ad in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call today urging FDA final approval.
"The scientific evidence is absolutely, robustly clear," Terry Etherton, chairman of animal science at Penn State University, is quoted as saying in the ad. "There is no food safety risk from the meat or milk of clones, or from their conventionally bred offspring."
The federation has collected more than 300 signatures of scientists who support the sale of milk and meat from clones and their offspring, based on studies reviewed by the FDA and the National Academies.
But opponents are also gearing up. The National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association, concerned that cloned cows may sully milk's wholesome image, lobbied Mikulski to slow the process. The senator had already expressed concern that safety studies were inadequate. She favors mandatory labeling of food from clones as a matter of "consumer choice," an approach the FDA generally eschews when safety is not an issue.
Consumer groups have also rallied.
Carol Tucker Foreman, of the Food Policy Institute and the Consumer Federation of America, criticized the industry plan as untrustworthy because it would be run "by the people who pushed cloning."
Joe Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety, a District-based advocacy group, called the plan "another attempt to force cloned milk and meat on consumers and the dairy industry by giving the public phony assurances."
Others have noted that most of the more than 150,000 public comments opposed FDA approval.
Surveys by the food industry-funded International Food Information Council have shown a slow increase in consumer acceptance of food from clones in the past few years, with about 22 percent having "favorable" views this year compared to 10 percent in 2004. The percentage with "unfavorable" opinions dropped during that period to 50 from 65.
Of particular relevance to the program being announced today is that people are getting comfortable with the idea of eating food from the offspring of clones faster than they are for food from the clones themselves, said Rachel Cheatham, the council's director of science and health communications.
About 570 cloned cattle are housed on farms and at university research stations today, about 75 percent of them made by ViaGen and Trans Ova Genetics of Sioux Center, Iowa. The goal is to give breeders superior stock to boost milk production and to produce more consistently high-quality cuts of beef.
The new plan would demand large deposits from farmers who buy clones from participating companies. The deposits would not be returned until the farmer documented that the animal had died and was disposed of outside the food chain -- or if in the food chain, properly identified as a clone.
Walton and Dave Faber, president of Trans Ova, said they believe other companies will sign on once the FDA gives marketing approval. "We've certainly had favorable feedback," Faber said.
But Steve Mower, director of marketing for Cyagra, an Elizabethtown, Pa., pig cloning company, said his company is not sure.
He said, "It sends kind of a mixed message, like 'Yes, it is safe' and 'No, it isn't.' "
Also unclear is whether the system would be seen by the FDA as reliable enough for it to allow meat and milk sellers to apply "clone-free" labels.
The FDA allows such "voluntary" labels only when their truthfulness can be verified, agency spokeswoman Julie Zawisza said. Thus the agency would allow clone-free labels only if it could be assured that all clone producers are participating in the program and that the incentives to be truthful are adequate.