America moved a step closer to serving meat and milk from cloned animals or their progeny yesterday when the government's food regulation agency said they would be as safe to eat as conventional foods.
The risk assessment by the FDA concluded that adult barnyard clones - cattle, sheep, goats and pigs - are virtually indistinguishable from traditionally bred livestock.
"The finding means that food products derived from animal clones are likely to be as safe as corresponding products from non-clones, or as safe as foods that we eat everyday," the study says. It does not address animal welfare, environmental safety, or ethical questions.
A summary of the 300-page study on the FDA website minimizes the impact of cloning on animal health, although it points out that clones tend to be oversized at birth and suffer health problems in infancy.
It said the existing food regulations would ensure that malformed and unhealthy clones did not reach the slaughterhouse or milking shed.
Therefore, the study concluded, the only potential hazard that could arise would be clones which appeared outwardly normal but carried physical anomalies.
The assessment falls in line with the prevailing view in the scientific establishment in America, and was guided by a study by the National Academies of Science which arrived at a nearly identical conclusion last year.
"As a member of the [NAS] committee, it was my recollection that no one on the committee had any concerns about the consumption of food from cloned animals," said Michael Roberts, an animal scientist at the University of Missouri.
"There were no substantial concerns resulting from consumption of cloned animals as long as those animals were not genetically modified."
Yesterday's announcement does not mean that Americans will be pouring cloned milk over their cornflakes in the immediate future.
Following the study's release, the FDA is beginning 60 days of public consultation on animal clones.
It has yet to contemplate the rules for marketing clone products. But the study does hasten the day when it will free farmers from a two-year voluntary ban on the sale of products of cloned animals: meat, milk, genetic material and offspring.
The move has been impatiently awaited by US breeders who have been freezing the embryos and sperm of clones and their offspring for more than a year, with a view to selling elite specimens.
Meanwhile, the products of clones are simply too expensive to eat.
"The farmer is spending $15,000 or $20,000 for an animal, so he is not going to turn it into tenderloin," said Kim Waddell, scientific director of the NAS study.
He predicts that it would be a couple of barnyard generations before clones entered the food market.
Nevertheless, the study could prompt a debate about food and animal safety in the US, where people have been largely indifferent to genetically modified foods - or at least that is the hope of environmental campaigners.
"I think they have realized that consumers are going to be concerned at this issue, and there is probably wide scale public resistance to eating products of cloned animal," says Joe Mendelson, the legal director of the Center for Food Safety, which is opposed to cloned food products.
But that would need Americans to reconsider their attitude towards biotechnology and food.
As much as 80% of their processed food is believed to contain a component from a genetically modified crop: there are no labeling requirements to confirm or confound the belief.
Only 52% of Americans are even aware that genetically modified food products are sold by their local supermarkets, according to an opinion poll two weeks ago from the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University.
Only 41% are in favor of GM food.
It also found that only 27% of Americans approved of animal-based GM food.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003