A senior official of the Food and Drug Administration said Friday that he saw no reason to place special labels on milk and meat from cloned animals, if those products were to reach grocery shelves.
The comment on labeling added a second controversial element to the FDA's announcement Friday that an advisory panel had found no health reasons to keep cloned animals and their milk out of the nation's food supply, although the panel wanted to review more data.
The FDA panel's conclusions represented an initial, tentative but important step in turning animal cloning into a commercially useful way to produce food. The agency said it wanted to hear from the public before granting final approval to the sale of meat and dairy products from cloned animals.
Because they found no significant differences between mature cloned animals and conventionally bred animals, FDA officials also said they saw no reason to provide special labels letting consumers know that meat, milk and other animal products came from cloned animals.
One group sharply disagreed. "Citizens deserve the right to know what is in their food and how it has been produced," said George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley, a large cooperative representing organic farmers. "At least if the product is labeled as being from cloned animals, consumers can have a choice."
In a preliminary report assessing potential human health risks of animal cloning, the FDA's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee said: "The current weight of evidence suggests that there are no biological reasons, either based on underlying scientific assumptions or empirical studies, to indicate that consumption of edible products from clones of cattle, pigs, sheep or goats poses a greater risk than consumption of those products from their nonclone counterparts."
And, it said, eating their offspring appeared as safe as eating the offspring of noncloned animals.
However, the committee said, its confidence in the conclusions would be increased with additional data.
The study focused largely on cattle, because more data were available on cattle than on other food animals. It drew similar conclusions for pigs and goats. It said little information was available on cloned sheep. According to the FDA, 400 to 500 cows and bulls have been produced by cloning.
The report builds on the findings of a National Academy of Sciences study issued a year ago that declared that although food from such clones posed a "low level of food safety concern," more data were needed.
Food producers envisage the use of cloning -- if it is commercially viable -- to reproduce the most genetically desirable cows and bulls, to minimize the cost of raising them and maximize the amount of meat and milk they produce.
Applauding the FDA report, Lisa Dry, communications director of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said: "Cloning can help livestock producers deliver what consumers want: nutritious, wholesome food products provided to them in a repeatable and reliable manner, and at an affordable price."
The organization says it represents more than 1,000 biotechnology companies, academic institutions and state biotechnology centers.
Siemon criticized the panel's conclusion. "Contrary to what the FDA says, there is no level of 'acceptable risk' when it comes to putting unproven science on the table for dinner," he said in a statement.
FDA officials went out of their way to emphasize that they did not lift what has been a moratorium -- to which the food industry is adhering voluntarily -- on the use of cloned animals in food production.
"We're not allowing cloned animals to enter the food chain at this point," FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford said in a telephone conference call with reporters. However, he said, a decision on whether to end the moratorium could be made "in the fairly near future."
He said the agency would continue to evaluate potential risks posed by cloned animals, while also recognizing that American society had not resolved the ethical debates about cloning.
Asked why food products from cloned animals should not be labeled when they reach grocery stores, he said that if the meat, milk, cheese and other products were identical to those of noncloned animals, there was no need for such labeling.
The assessment was based on studies of animals at various stages of development, from embryo to birth and maturity. It did not consider deformed or obviously diseased cloned animals, which would be kept out of the food supply just as similar noncloned animals would be condemned.
Rather, it focused on what it called "subtle hazards" arising from the cloning process.
"As clones grow and develop, they appear to become as healthy as their conventional counterparts," the report said. "There do not appear to be any health risks to apparently normal clones that survive beyond a few weeks of birth."
Indeed, it found that 6- to- 18-month-old clones are "virtually indistinguishable" from nonclones of the same age and breed.