WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government ruled on Tuesday that food from cloned animals and their offspring is as safe as other food, opening the door to bringing meat and milk from clone offspring into the food supply.
"Extensive evaluation of the available data has not identified any subtle hazards that might indicate food consumption risks in healthy clones of cattle, swine or goats," the Food and Drug Administration said in a final risk assessment that confirmed preliminary findings from 2006.
The FDA, after reviewing more than 700 studies, said it did not have enough facts to make an assertion about cloned sheep.
The ruling was the latest twist after years of debate over the reproductive technology, which advocates say will provide consumers with top-quality food by replicating prized animals that can breed highly productive offspring.
The cloning industry, made up so far of only a handful of firms, expects that it will be the offspring of cloned animals, not the costly clones themselves, that would provide meat or milk to U.S. consumers.
There are currently about 570 cloned animals in the United States, but the livestock industry has so far followed a voluntary ban on marketing food from cloned animals.
Even as the FDA unveiled its final rule, the Agriculture Department asked the cloning industry to prolong the ban on selling products from cloned animals during a "transition" period expected to last at least several months.
That ban would not extend to meat and milk from clone's offspring, a USDA spokesman said.
It could take four or five years before consumers are able to buy clone-derived food on a wide scale as animals are cloned, mature and give birth to progeny used for food.
While the FDA findings are a boon for the cloning industry, the topic remains controversial even among food producers and is an unpalatable idea for many American consumers.
U.S. food companies are approaching the ruling gingerly. Some dairy firms oppose cloning, betting that shoppers will shun goods they see linked to cloning technology.
Several major food companies, like Tyson Foods Inc, quickly stated that they are not signing up for cloned livestock, at least right away.
Others in Congress and civil society believe more testing is needed before concluding that cloning is safe, especially with consumer confidence marred by recent food scares.
"The cloning industry's proposal is simply another attempt to force cloned milk and meat on consumers and the dairy industry by giving the public phony assurances," the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group, said in a statement.
The FDA will not require mandatory labels for clone-derived food and will review "clone-free" labels individually.
The FDA notes that the ethical and moral implications of cloning fall outside the scope of its findings. Critics, like the U.S. Humane Society, say cloned animals born with defects or prone to disease are proof the technology is a bad idea.
Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the cloning industry must now convince the public why cloning is useful.
"Just because the technology is safe, it doesn't mean that as a society there is reason to embrace it," he said.
Jaffe expects Congress or some states may try to impose additional restrictions on marketing or labeling.
A spending bill passed by Congress last year urged the FDA to conduct further analysis, while the Senate has passed a measure as part of a giant agriculture bill that would delay FDA approval until more studies are completed.
"The FDA has decided to continue the alarming trend of acting on behalf of political and corporate interests," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.
U.S. cloning firms, including Texas-based ViaGen Inc, believe the sale of cloned animals, which can cost upwards of $13,000 each, will grow slowly in coming years.
The FDA cloning decision comes as biotechnology becomes an ever more important part of global agriculture.
Just last week, the European Food Safety Authority made an interim ruling about food from cloned animals and their offspring, saying it was unlikely there was any difference from food derived from traditionally bred animals.
Additional reporting by Bob Burgdorfer in Chicago and Maggie Fox in Washington; editing by Russell Blinch and Christian Wiessner