The battle against cloned food has moved up a notch, with the Center for Food Safety joining a major dairy firm yesterday in protests against the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The protests come just over a month after the nation's food regulator announced plans to approve cloning for food production later this year.
But the controversial decision sparked an immediate backlash from public health groups as well as industry bodies unwilling to see the change unless convinced of the science.
"We are here today to let FDA know that the American people will not accept this food cloning experiment on our children's milk. The biotech industry can say that these foods are safe until the cows come home, but Americans won't be fooled by industry propaganda - we demand independent scientific review and long-term studies on this radical new food technology," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety (CFS).
In December FDA released a report that claimed food from cloned animals and their offspring was as safe for human consumption as conventional food. The regulator opened a 90-day consultation period to gather feedback before deciding whether its proposals - including allowing cloned food to be sold with no special labeling - should become policy.
Cloning may provide processors with a better quality of meat and products - such as animals with increased disease resistance - but CFS claims that the technology, if adopted, will result in a losing situation for both consumers and manufacturers. The FDA, it says, is taking a narrow view and ignoring public and industry concerns.
Last October, CFS filed a legal petition with the FDA seeking a moratorium on foods produced from cloned animals and establishment of mandatory rules for pre-market food safety and environmental review of cloned foods.
In December, seven Senators wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt in protest over its plan to approve food from clones.
And some states, including California and Massachusetts, are considering state bills calling for labeling of cloned food. Indeed, last month San Francisco Senator Carole Migden introduced a bill that would require such labeling, in order to provide California residents with the option to choose what they consume if cloned products are ultimately approved for human consumption.
Many food and dairy firms are also approaching the issue with caution, unwilling to accept the new technology without additional scientific backing. Indeed, this is also in part a reaction to consumer fears, with many firms unwilling to compromise people's confidence in their products.
Recent consumer opinion polls show that most Americans do not want the experimental foods.
A November 2006 poll conducted by the Food Information Council found that 58 per cent of Americans surveyed would be unlikely to buy meat or milk from cloned animals, even if supported by FDA safety endorsements. In the same poll, only 16 per cent of Americans had a favorable opinion of cloning.
At this stage, one of the main issues for the industry is a lack of definitive and forceful guidance from the FDA.
In October, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) told FoodNavigator-USA.com that the group does not at this time support milk from cloned cows entering the marketplace until FDA determines that this is the same as milk from conventionally bred animals. And when this happens, the agency needs to be proactive and clearly and forcefully specify what claims are allowed, it said.
In addition to Ben & Jerry's, other dairies are also rejecting milk from clones. In a January 23 letter to its coop members, California's largest dairy processor, California Dairies, stated that it "will not accept milk from cloned cows, effective immediately." Another California dairy, Clover Stornetta announced its ban on milk from clones early in January.
In it recent petition to the FDA, CFS requested that the Department of Health and Human Services establish a federal review committee to advice FDA on the ethical issues.
"We intend to pursue our legal action to compel FDA to address the many unanswered questions around cloned food," said the CFS.