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Cloning moves forward despite consumer, retailer concerns

Last January, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats are as safe to consume as those from conventionally bred animals.

This gives the green light for cloning technology to move forward in the marketplace. For livestock producers, it's a chance to recreate the same set of genetics in a prized sire.

"The science is crystal clear," says Barb Glenn, director for animal biotechnology for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), an industry group that supports animal cloning. "It will be a tool for farmers and ranchers to raise better livestock."

Glenn and others discussed animal cloning at the annual meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists held earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

USDA estimates there are now around 600 cloned animals in the United States. Most are cattle, along with a smattering of hogs and goats. "These are high-value animals, used for purposes like show rings, breeding enthusiasts, and rodeos," says Glenn.

Livestock producers likely will not use cloning routinely, considering the $15,000 to $20,000 per animal copy price tag. "This technology is very expensive," says Bruce Knight, USDA Under Secretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

However, it could be worth every penny to recreate the genetics of a prized animal, says Knight. There's no other technique in conventional breeding that can replicate the animal as well as cloning, he adds.

U.S. companies working with animal cloning include Trans Ova Genetics, Sioux Center, Iowa; ViaGen, Austin, Texas; and Cyagra, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. These companies still have a voluntary cloning moratorium for clone-associated products in place. Glenn estimates it will be three to five years before any offspring from cloned animals enter the meat and milk market.

When market entry occurs, it will be the offspring that move into the market, not the clones.

"The breeding animals are clones, but the sexually produced offspring are not cloned," says Glenn. "We think the offspring of every clone is safe."

That's not the case in the eyes of groups like the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a Washington, D.C., based environmental advocacy group that opposes cloning. "We think the FDA risk assessment is inadequate," says Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a Washington, D.C., based environmental advocacy group that opposes animal cloning.

Then there's the concern about the risk that cattle may pass genetic defects to cloned offspring. "If you think about it, if you want to pass good traits to offspring, why wouldn't bad ones transfer, too?" asks Hanson.

In the meantime, cloning companies are working on developing a Supply Chain Management Program, an animal clone registry database that allows food companies to identify animal clones. BIO officials believe this tracking system will support a gradual transition of cloned products into the marketplace.

So far, foreign countries aren't balking at cloned products via trade restrictions or mandatory labeling. They've responded favorably to the voluntary moratorium, too, Glenn says.

"We're heard appreciation and praise from customers around the globe requesting the voluntary moratorium continue not due to concerns, but because the voluntary moratorium gives their countries time to do scientific risk assessments," says Glenn. Countries working on scientific risk assessments include Japan and Argentina.

Ultimately, food consumers will determine whether cloning flies or flops.

"Right out of the gate, it comes with high negatives," says Hanson. "In poll after poll, the public has said it does not want to consume products from these animals." He cites a 2007 International Food Information Council poll in which 51% of Americans are unlikely to buy meat, milk and eggs from offspring of cloned animals even if FDA determines the products are safe.

This coincides with a number of retailers who are skittish about products from cloned animals. Last year, Dean Foods, the largest U.S. processor and distributor of milk, said it would not sell milk from cloned animals or their offspring due to consumer concerns.

To track potential problems, the CFS recommends labeling on products from offspring of cloned animals.

"The Center for Food Safety wants labeling from at least two generations of progeny," says Hanson. "We also think without good labeling, it will be impossible to track health effects. Labeling will allow consumers to make ethical choices about the milk and meat they eat."

Glenn disagrees. "The outcry is 'let's label the cloned food,'" she says. "You and I will never eat food from a cloned animal. There is no such thing as cloned food. No label is required for these food products, because these food products are as safe as any other product. Such a label would be non-truthful and misleading."

Last January, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats are as safe to consume as those from conventionally bred animals.

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