FDA to rule on sales of clones' products

But many consumers are wary of `Frankenfoods'

October 02, 2005|By JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF | JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The federal government is nearing a decision to allow the sale of meat and milk from cloned cows and their offspring, according to officials from government, industry and consumer groups.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to take a major step toward approval soon, proposing to permit the sales, subject to 60 days of public comment and additional review.

That could lead to choice cuts of steak and cartons of milk produced from cloned cattle landing in kitchens over the next several years.

Given the high cost of cloning, industry officials and consumer advocates say that it's more likely that consumers would be sold the meat - if not the milk - of offspring of cloned cattle, not of the clones themselves.

"You're not producing them to eat - you're producing them to breed," said Scott K. Davis, president of Start Licensing, a joint venture of biotechnology companies that own the licenses for cloning livestock. He said cloning a cow would cost $15,000.

Even after the FDA reaches a final decision, livestock producers will need up to four years or more to raise offspring ready for slaughter, and most dairy farmers may ignore the technology until the cost falls, their trade groups said.

Once approval comes, however, industry and consumer groups are concerned that a public backlash will follow. Scientific studies support the safety of the food products, but surveys indicate that many Americans remain jittery or harbor ethical concerns.

"A train wreck is coming," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America. "It's not about the science. It's how people see their food."

Some consumer advocates and dairy companies have urged regulators to delay a decision until those fears can be calmed. Yet with the accumulation of studies supporting the food's safety, the FDA has edged toward approval.

The FDA had said an announcement was likely within the next few weeks, but the recent surprise resignation of FDA Commissioner Lester M. Crawford might delay it until the end of the year, or even longer, according to industry and consumer groups. The decision would represent one of the first major acts by acting FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach.

When the FDA makes an announcement, the agency said, it will release the draft of a report on the safety of eating and drinking from cloned animals and, in all likelihood, tentative rules governing the sale of the foodstuffs.

"We're well aware that there are many social and ethical issues related to the cloning of animals," Crawford said at a Sept. 19 food conference.

It is a measure of the government's sensitivity on the issue that the FDA is also considering publishing a paper in a scientific journal that would mention the moral and ethical concerns surrounding the decision. That would be a departure from the agency's scientific mission.

Plans to White House

According to industry officials, the FDA has also sent its plans to the White House for approval by President Bush's aides.

"It hasn't been a safety issue that is holding this up. It is a concern about the public reaction," Michael Rodemeyer, former executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, said at the same conference where Crawford spoke.

The FDA said its ruling will encompass cloning of goats, pigs and sheep, as well as cows.

Many livestock producers support approval because cloning increases the odds that it will yield beef with the grade, marbling and other qualities that fetch the highest prices and provide the best taste and tenderness.

Leah Wilkinson, director of food policy at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said she expects the beef to be sold in supermarkets, though how widely it will be marketed will depend on the cost and the speed with which producers use the technology.

Since 1997, Americans have been eating processed foods made with genetically modified vegetables, such as corn and soybeans. But many consumers regard goats and pigs differently from canola and squash, polls show. Also, talk of cloning prompts fears straight out of science fiction movies.

A national survey last year by the Pew Initiative found that 57 percent of those polled opposed scientific research into the genetic modification of animals. Often, the reason cited was a fear of humans playing God, even among those who are not very religious.

"People fear ... we're beginning to go down a road and we don't know where it's going and what the consequences will be," Rodemeyer said.

Sanford A. Miller, former director of the FDA's food safety office, said research hasn't raised safety concerns.

"As far as we can tell, there doesn't seem to be a difference" between food from cloned animals and conventionally bred animals, said Miller, who served on a National Academy of Sciences committee that studied animal cloning.

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