- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Food and Drug Administration’s endorsement of food from cloned animals gives hope to struggling businesses that clone cows and pigs, although it could take years for the food to reach grocery shelves.

The biotechnology companies say they think ranchers, dairy producers and others will be more willing to pay upward of $16,000 per clone after last week’s tentative approval by the agency to use the technology to produce food.

Although no law bars cloned food, the companies and their customers for the past three years have voluntarily withheld sales of cloned-derived food pending the FDA review.

An 800-page FDA report concluded Thursday that there is no difference between cloned and conventionally produced food. The FDA has not formally adopted its findings, keeping the voluntary ban in place for now.

The initial milk, beef and pork products on the market likely won’t come directly from cloned animals because of the technology’s cost. Instead, ranchers are expected to pay to produce a “rock star” breeder that would generate valuable offspring for years to come.

The idea is to create exact genetic duplicates of animals that consistently produce superior offspring. Breeding today is as much art as science, and ranchers have no way of knowing whether a particular cow will produce steakhouse-grade cuts or dog food.

Cloning aims to take much of that guesswork out of breeding by guaranteeing that offspring of cloned animals carry superior genetics that will fetch top prices for their beef, milk and bacon.

But cloning breeders is one thing, and watching them grow old enough to produce food is another. Once that happens, the cloning industry will have to overcome consumer skepticism.

Mark Walton, president of ViaGen Inc., said that it would take about five years before clone-derived food hits the market.

“And it still will be relatively small numbers,” he said. “For this to really take off, producers are going to have to see the animals out in the field.”

ViaGen and others have been awaiting the FDA decision for four years, and several rivals have gone out of business during that period. ViaGen has survived because it is backed by a billionaire investor and has brought in revenue by cloning show horses and bucking bulls for rodeos.

The privately held company controls most of the key patents in the field, including the one granted to the creators of Dolly the sheep, and is expected to benefit most from the FDA ruling.

ViaGen cloned 65 head of cattle and five horses last year. With the FDA approval, the company hopes that some food producers will clone some of their better animals in anticipation of cloning becoming widely accepted.

Critics of cloning say the verdict is still out on the safety of food from cloned animals, while others complain that cloning results in more deaths and deformed animals than other reproductive technologies.

“American consumers are increasingly concerned about the treatment of animals raised and slaughtered for food,” said Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States.

Some surveys have shown people to be reluctant about eating food from cloned animals. In a September poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonpartisan research group, 64 percent said they were uncomfortable with such food.

“It remains to be seen whether dairy farmers will choose to use it,” said Connie Tipton, president of the International Dairy Foods Association. “There currently is no consumer benefit in milk from cloned cows.”

The few companies such as ViaGen of Austin, Texas, and Cyagra of Elizabethtown, Pa., insist they can sway public sentiment. They argue that consumers may be confusing cloning with genetic engineering, a technology that has generated vocal opposition when applied to crops.

The companies liken cloning to now-common reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination, both of which are used often to create elite animals that command premium prices.

“It’s not a replacement for other breeding methods,” said Steve Mower, Cyagra’s marketing director. “Cloning is just another tool.”

To clone, scientists replace all the genetic material in an egg with a mature cell containing the complete genetic code from the donor. Cloners argue that the resulting animal is simply the donor’s twin, containing an identical makeup, but destined for its own distinct fate influenced by environment and chance.

“There is no question this technology will have a dramatic impact,” said Val Giddings, president of the biotechnology consulting firm Prometheus AB. “But breeding animals takes time.”

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