By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The U.S. Department of Agriculture yesterday asked U.S. farmers to keep their cloned animals off the market indefinitely even as Food and Drug Administration officials announced that food from cloned livestock is safe to eat.
Bruce I. Knight, the USDA's undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, requested an ongoing "voluntary moratorium" to buy time for "an acceptance process" that Knight said consumers in the United States and abroad will need, "given the emotional nature of this issue."
Yet even as the two agencies sought a unified message -- that food from clones is safe for people but perhaps dangerous to U.S. markets and trade relations -- evidence surfaced suggesting that Americans and others are probably already eating meat from the offspring of clones.
Executives from the nation's major cattle cloning companies conceded yesterday that they have not been able to keep track of how many offspring of clones have entered the food supply, despite a years-old request by the FDA to keep them off the market pending completion of the agency's safety report.
At least one Kansas cattle producer also disclosed yesterday that he has openly sold semen from prize-winning clones to many U.S. meat producers in the past few years, and that he is certain he is not alone.
"This is a fairy tale that this technology is not being used and is not already in the food chain," said Donald Coover, a Galesburg cattleman and veterinarian who has a specialty cattle semen business. "Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn't know what they're talking about, or they're not being honest."
Yesterday's awkwardly meshed announcements by FDA and USDA officials, made at a joint news conference in Washington, reflected continuing divisions among U.S. regulatory agencies on how to deal with the issue of food from clones.
Stephen F. Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, spoke from his perspective as the person who oversaw that agency's six-year review of the safety of milk and meat from clones and their offspring. He released the results of that 968-page "final risk analysis," saying "meat and milk from cattle, swine and goat clones are as safe as food we eat every day."
That conclusion amounted to handing the cloned-food hot potato to the USDA's Knight, whose agency has the responsibility of getting those products accepted on the market.
Recent surveys indicate that the agency has a challenge. Last year, 22 percent of Americans who responded to a major survey said they had a favorable impression of food from clones.
That was up from 16 percent a year earlier. Nonetheless, about 50 percent have an unfavorable impression, said Danielle "Dani" Schor of the International Food Information Council Foundation, an industry-funded interest group that has conducted the survey of 1,000 Americans annually since 2004.
At issue are clones of beef cattle, dairy cows, pigs and goats, as well as their offspring, which farmers in the United States and a few other countries are starting to raise in an effort to produce more consistently high-quality milk and meat.
In recent weeks, as it became clear that the FDA was ready to release its positive safety report, officials there began encountering resistance from other agencies that would have to deal with the consequences of food from clones entering the U.S. food supply.
Some of them, including the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, have been struggling for years to persuade countries in Europe and other parts of the world to accept gene-altered crops from the United States. The last thing those agencies needed, insiders said, was a new U.S. product that nobody wants.
The USDA's request that farmers keep their clones out of the food chain, probably for a few more years, "is simply allowing the time for an orderly transition to occur," Knight said, adding that the department is already having conversations with U.S. trading partners and trying to smooth the way to acceptance.
Some U.S. consumer groups have expressed concern for the cloned animals, which often have health problems, and have suggested that the American public may be as tough a sell as the wary consumers in the European Union and Japan.
"Despite the fact that cloned animals suffer high mortality rates and those who survive are often plagued with birth defects and diseases, the FDA did not give adequate consideration to the welfare of these animals or their surrogate mothers in its deliberations," said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.
Some U.S. groups have demanded that food from clones be labeled to give consumers the "right to choose."
But James Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, whose members include the nation's biggest farm-animal cloning companies, rejected that idea, as has the FDA. He said cloning is simply a way to make offspring. Other methods of farm animal procreation, such as in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination, are not listed on food labels.
He and other industry representatives specifically rejected proposals to label food from conventionally conceived offspring of clones.
While the now-expired FDA moratorium sought to keep both clones and their offspring off the market, the new USDA moratorium requests only that clones themselves be withheld, so the offspring might make it to store shelves within a few years.
But imagine the labels that would appear if certain rules were in place, Greenwood said:
" 'This steak's father was a clone.' 'This steak's grandfather was a clone.' 'This steak's great-grandmother was a clone.'
"At what point does it become absurd?"
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.