Safety of Cloned Livestock Debated

Monisha Bansal | Staff Writer | Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Safety of Cloned Livestock Debated

( - Claiming that cloned livestock are good for the food supply in the United States, biotechnology firms are hailing the Food and Drug Administration's tentative decision to classify meat and milk from cloned animals as indistinguishable from current supplies. But consumer and animal "rights" activists are strongly opposed to the move.

"Cloning is simply a powerful new tool in the animal breeder's toolkit," said Mark Walton, president of the animal cloning firm ViaGen. He called the FDA's risk assessment "one of the most exhaustive food safety studies ever conducted."

Walton said cloned animals would make up a small proportion of the overall livestock numbers.

"Because cloned animals are very costly and represent the most valuable breeding stock, they will be used primarily for breeding," he said. "Even so, they will represent an infinitesimal percentage of the total number of animals.

"For example, there are only about 600 cloned animals in the country today. Most of these are show animals, not livestock bred for food. In comparison, the U.S. dairy herd alone includes roughly nine million cows."

The FDA last week released a draft risk assessment, and members of the public have 90 days to comment. A final assessment from the FDA is expected in late 2007.

Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said based on analysis of hundreds of studies, the FDA assessment "has determined that meat and milk from clones and their offspring are as safe as food we eat every day.

"Cloning poses no unique risks to animal health when compared to other assisted reproductive technologies currently in use in U.S. agriculture," he said.

The FDA has asked the agricultural industry not to introduce products from cloned animals into the food supply until the final risk assessment is completed.

Even once that point is reached, it will be some time before cloned animal products are on the menu, according to Barb Glenn, managing director of animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Glenn said it will take time to create offspring from a cloned sire -- and eventually, it will will be the meat and milk of cloned offspring that consumers will eat and drink, she told Cybercast News Service .

"That will take two to three years from the time they make that final risk assessment," Glenn said.

"So we're really talking about anywhere from three to five years almost till we get meat and milk in the grocery store from the offspring of clones."

Glenn argued that cloning helps farmers meet consumer demand for high-quality, safe food "that is available in a reliable and consistent manner." Farmers aim to improve animal health and viability so that they can produce "healthy foods."

Under the FDA's current labeling policy, food products from cloned animals would not require a special label, Glenn said.

But animal advocacy groups say cloning will cause animals to suffer.

"The welfare of billions of farm animals is already abysmal, thanks in part to traditional genetic selection for production traits at the expense of the animals' health and welfare," said Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture at the Humane Society of the U.S.

"Using biotechnology to stress animals even further is adding insult to injury."

The society argues that cloning research has seen high failure rates. "Many farm animals used in the studies have suffered a long list of health problems, including abnormalities such as deformed feet, weakened immune systems, dysfunctional organs and premature death."

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the consumer rights group Food and Water Watch, called the FDA move "yet another example of the agency's willingness to disregard safety in the face of industry pressure."

"The safety of eating milk and meat from cloned animals is far from proven, with only a handful of studies and little long-term evidence," she said.

"The low survival rate and high number of deformities in cloned animals also raise significant concerns about cruelty to animals," Hauter added. "It is too soon for this controversial technology to be unleashed in the marketplace."

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