Labels Weighed for Food From Clones

A cloned calf named Elvis was born on a farm in Austin owned by Raymond and Karen Rosenbaum.
A cloned calf named Elvis was born on a farm in Austin owned by Raymond and Karen Rosenbaum. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

With the Food and Drug Administration having declared that meat and milk from cloned animals are safe, opponents of food from clones are shifting their fight to how such fare is labeled.

Although the FDA said last week that it will not require special labels on foods from clones, legislation already introduced in the Senate could force the agency's hand. Short of that, many consumers are demanding that the agency allow food from conventional animals to be labeled "clone-free" -- a marketing move that could dash industry hopes of getting beyond the public debate over clones.

Separately, some consumer groups are wondering aloud how the FDA will live up to its promise to keep an eye on the quickly evolving field of animal cloning and protect the public from unexpected problems.

The agency has a strategy for doing so, laid out in a "risk management plan" released last week alongside its larger "risk assessment." But its plans depend heavily on the cooperation of the companies making the clones, an approach that critics say is less than reassuring.

Bruce I. Knight, undersecretary for marketing at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which now has the task of helping to get food from clones to the market, expressed optimism last week that producers and consumers will find common ground.

"We'll be working closely with stakeholders to ensure a smooth and seamless transition into the marketplace for these products," Knight said.

Yet skirmishes seem certain.

A fight over labeling is perhaps the surest -- one likely to be led in part by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has introduced legislation that would require labels.

Clone companies oppose labels, seeing them as little more than a tool to help wary consumers avoid clone-derived products. Companies note that meat and milk products from conventionally bred animals are not labeled with details about how those animals were conceived. And the FDA has generally reserved mandatory labeling for things that present a real risk.

But even if calls for labeling fail, the FDA could respond to public pressure with the clone-free labels for products not from clones.

The FDA may allow such labels, even in the absence of safety concerns, if the claims on the labels can be verified. That is a difficult bar to clear for clone-free milk and meat because those products are chemically indistinguishable from their equivalents made from clones. But there is a precedent.

Years ago, the FDA relented under consumer pressure and allowed special labels on dairy products from animals that are not treated with recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), a hormone that some farmers give their cows to boost milk production.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company