The FDA will today issue its long-awaited final risk assessment on the safety of meat and milk from healthy cloned animals and their offspring, which concludes that they pose no risk to human health.
The issue has been a contentious one since the draft risk assessment, published in December 2006, raised a number of questions and elicited a strong response from opposing parties and some consumers during the comment period.
In effect, the risk assessment, understood to have found no evidence for hidden risks - now removes the final barrier to the marketing of meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs and goats in the United States.
For now FDA is still asking the industry to continue its voluntary moratorium on meat and milk from actual cloned animals (thought to number a few hundred), and it is not clear for how long this will remain in place.
The voluntary moratorium request does not hold for progeny of cloned animals, however.
Indeed, it is not expected that cloned animals will form any significant quantity of cloned material makes its way into the food chain, since at present the high cost of cloned animals (said to be between $15,000 and $20,000 per animal) means it is not economical.
Rather, clones of the very best breeding stock are expected to be used to produce high quality offspring destined for human consumption or milk production. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), cloned animals themselves would form only a "miniscule" part of the food supply only when they come to the end of their useful lives.
Nonetheless, given the strength of feeling about the issue and indications that consumers are resistant to non-GM, a number of food companies have moved to promise that they will not use cloned meat and milk in their products.
For instance Smithfield Foods today reiterated previous statements that it has no plans to produce meat products from cloned animals since the science is still relatively new. It said it will continue to monitor further scientific research on this technology, whilst using selective breeding and genetic research to improve the quality of its products.
One of the most troublesome aspects of the issue has concerned labeling of cloned material in foods, since the FDA does not plan to require products make any declaration of cloned content on the label.
This, opponents say, would deprive consumers of the choice to opt for products not linked to the technology.
According to The Washington Post, however, there is a chance the FDA would allow the introduction of labels to indicate no material from cloned animals in the product.
According to a report on US consumer views of food biotechnology, published by the International Food Information Council last September, fewer Americans hold positive perceptions of animal biotechnology (cloning) than plant biotechnology (genetic modification).
It said that 24 percent of respondents had favorable perceptions of animal biotechnology in 2007, compared to 19 percent the year before. However 53 percent were still neutral on the subject or said they did not know enough to form their own opinion.
However, the survey found that if FDA determined that foods from cloned animals are safe, 46 percent of consumers would view the technology favorably, with 49 percent saying they would likely purchase such products if safety determinations were offered.
In what may be seen as a bid to reassure consumers and prevent a possible blight on the image of American meat and milk in international markets, the FDA has been transparent in including much raw data in its risk assessment report.
The CSPI has said it is satisfied that the FDA has satisfactorily answered the safety question on cloned animals.
"While the safety of any food cannot be proven with absolute certainty, consumers should have confidence that meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring will be safe," said CSPI biotechnology director Gregory Jaffe.
However he said that the matter should not stop here, as there are still unanswered questions on the animal-welfare, ethical and environmental implications of cloning. These, he maintains, should be addressed by Congress.
Moreover, any food company that does decide to go down the cloned meat and milk route would have to justify its decision.
"Will it make any food product better, safer, cheaper or more sustainable?" asked Jaffe. "Clear evidence of benefits must be generated if consumers are going to accept cloned animals and their products."