Milk from cloned cows and meat from cloned cattle and pigs could show up on grocery shelves as early as next year. According to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, cloning is becoming a routine part of U.S. agricultural production and livestock breeders are already raising clones on farms.

A NAS panel has reviewed developments in animal cloning and is worried about genetic manipulation of fish and insects that might escape and harm wild species. However, it finds the cloning of farm animals to be no problem, since the technique involves copying adult animals without altering their genes. The committee says cloning is unlikely to affect the safety of the food supply. “I think our message was fairly loud and clear,” says panel member Eric Hallerman, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. “The concern about food safety, we thought, was just way overblown.”

A few cloned cows scattered around the country are already producing milk, although farmers and companies are not selling it yet. They?ve been asked to wait by the FDA, which is reviewing whether clones, their byproducts or their offspring, should be allowed into the food supply. The agency will make a decision by late this year. If there is no compelling evidence of a problem, the FDA or any other government agency won?t have the legal power to keep cloned animals out of the food supply.

Some groups say cloning on a large scale will lead to widespread animal suffering. Though clones that survive to adulthood seem healthy, they die in large numbers in the womb or just after birth, and the pregnancies appear to be stressful for the surrogate mothers. Also, many clones are born with genetic defects. The number of cloned animals living on American farms today is fewer than 100. All are animals that cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce and are valued as breeding stock, not as meat.

For that reason, products made from clones won?t get to the marketplace soon. But if cloning becomes established and the price of cloning falls, entire dairy herds may be stocked with nothing but clones of the best cows. Cloning may never be cheap enough to produce animals for use directly as meat, but it’s likely the offspring of clones will wind up in the meat supply in large numbers.

Cloned food could be on grocery store shelves next year. By this spring, farmers around the country will face the choice of selling milk from their clones or dumping it back on their fields. If the FDA will let them, they plan to sell it. Beef and Pork won?t be far behind, with some first-generation offspring cows and pigs being butchered for food in 2004 or 2005. Other countries are moving in the same direction. A study published recently in Japan says cloned meat and milk are identical to the ordinary kind. Japan is now preparing to lift a cloning ban.

Cloned animals, made with the same technique that was used to produce Dolly the sheep in 1996, are close genetic copies of their adult progenitors, so eating them shouldn’t be any different from dining on the original. But research shows that cloning alters some genetic patterns, at least slightly, and there’s a possibility that this could affect their meat or milk. Scientists says the offspring being produced right now pose no risk because they are the product of natural sexual crosses. “The offspring of clones we’re not concerned about at all,” says an expert from Virginia Tech. “That’s just a normal animal.”

A year ago Joe Fisher was getting ready to have his champion pig 401-K cloned when the animal died suddenly of an intestinal blockage. The boar had been dead several hours by the time Fisher managed to salvage ear cells and ship them off to Infigen, one of a handful of companies offering cloning services to breeders. “It was like a bad Woody Allen movie, the way we were running around here,” Fisher says. But he now has six clones of 401-K and one of The Man, another champion boar. “They look like a pig. They smell like a pig. They feel like a pig,” Fisher says. “It’s a pig.”

One concern is that breeders may attempt genetic modification of their animals, to make them leaner or improve milk production. Such genetic manipulation poses far more potential problems than just cloning them, and the FDA would require extensive proof that the gene-altered animals are safe to eat. The FDA?s Stephen Sundlof says, “Once you get into the cloning technology, it’s very tempting to want to manipulate a few genes here and there, too.”

How can we tell what we?re eating? Find out from ?Eating in the Dark? by Kathleen Hart,click here.

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