Before the end of this year, however, the agency will announce whether it will endorse the marketing of such products based on new evidence -- to be published in the January issue of Theriogenology -- that suggests milk and meat from cloned animals poses no special risk to consumers.
"Our evaluation is that the food from cloned animals is as safe as the food we eat every day," said Stephen F. Sundlof, the FDA's chief of veterinary medicine.
Big companies and farmers alike have been cloning livestock from single cells in expectation of a new market based on consistent, abundant, quality cloned foods filling grocery store shelves, and overcoming the limitations of conventional breeding. Through breeding, cows only give birth to one offspring a year, and half of them are males. With cloning, copies of cows that produce a lot of milk could be made easily. Another drawback to conventional breeding is that many prize males are not recognized until they have already been castrated, but with cloned animals, the male's ability to produce sperm would be irrelevant.
Proponents of the technology say that the clones are not genetically engineered or "transgenic" animals -- which the FDA has already said it would regulate if marketed -- but rather twins born a generation apart from their siblings. Several advocacy groups disagree, saying that clones should be regulated the same as transgenics.
"The government talks about being science-based, and that's great, but I think there is another pillar here: the question of whether we really want to do this," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America.
The advocacy groups filed a petition Thursday with the FDA, requesting the administration regulate cloned animals individually -- the same way it does with new drugs -- which would slow market approval to a crawl. The petition also asks that the agency produce environmental impact statements for each proposed line of clones.
"The available science shows that cloning presents serious food safety risks, animal welfare concerns and unresolved ethical issues that require strict oversight," the petition states. The food risk theory is based on the possibility that subtle genetic changes observed in clones could alter the nutritional nature of their meat or milk, but scientists say no such changes have been found.
Even if no nutritional changes have been found in cloned food, the general public does not currently seem to support the idea. Nationwide surveys have found that more than 60 percent of the population is not comfortable with consuming cloned meat and milk. Religion and ethics are given as the primary reasons, with safety issues coming in a close second, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, an independent research and education project.
The idea also has several powerful opponents from within the food industry, led by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), which is comprised of companies such as Kraft Foods, Dannon, General Mills and Nestle USA. Dairy companies are concerned that the association of milk with cloning could harm their wholesome image.
The Washington Post managed to obtain confidential documents from the IDFA showing it had been a major hurdle for FDA action on the marketing of cloned animal products, and had a strategy to prevent the agency from approving such products in the future. A spokesperson for the association, Susan Ruland, said the plan -- largely comprised of a lobbying strategy and using friends in Congress to block approval -- had been abandoned.
Sundlof noted that the FDA is not authorized to make its decisions based on ethical concerns anyway, and labeling the products as being from clones -- as some groups have demanded -- would be impossible, as they are indistinguishable from traditional food products. Some experts say that some clone owners have already sold semen to cattle growers, and most of those animals end up in the food supply.
"That you can go online today to any number of different web sites and purchase semen from cloned bulls tells you there are cloned sires out there fathering calves in the food supply," said ViaGen President Mark Walton.
"I urge all health-conscious consumers to reject milk and meat from cloned animals," said Mike Adams, a consumer health advocate and author of Grocery Warning. "This is not merely about the safety of the milk, it's about the serious ethical questions of leveraging cloning technology to create a 'Matrix' of living beings who are created for the sole purpose of being exploited for corporate profit. Just because we can clone cows, doesn't mean we should."