While world attention focused yesterday on a report of the first cloned human embryo, regulators were already at work looking at whether animal clones are safe for the U.S. food supply.
Animal cloning has progressed since 1997, when researchers introduced Dolly the sheep, the first cloned adult mammal. Biotechnology companies have produced duplicates of prized animals and are marketing the technology to animal owners.
With the field moving quickly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is weighing whether to regulate cloned farm animals that people might consume.
Some cloning experts have argued that all clones have at least subtle irregularities that cannot be easily detected, and consumer groups say federal oversight is needed until more is known.
"We don't think the FDA should rush headlong into just saying these things are okay and allowing the animals to be commercialised rapidly," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Washington-based Center for Food Safety.
The National Research Council will convene a meeting today to prepare a report for the FDA on bio-engineered animals. Two firms are scheduled to tell the scientific experts that their cloned cows are apparently normal and thriving.
"We are up to our ears in clones," Michael Bishop, president of DeForest, Wisconsin-based Infigen Inc., said in an interview."We have normal cows. They are producing milk, their milk is normal. They perform normally in every way," he said, adding the privately owned company was preparing the information for publication in a scientific journal.
Advanced Cell Technology, the firm that made headlines by announcing on Sunday it had cloned human embryos to derive stem cells for potential medical therapies, also will report that its cloned cattle appear normal.
The private company, based in Worcester, Massachusetts, reported in the journal Sciencethat it had tested 24 adult cows and found nothing unusual.
The FDA is evaluating whether meat or milk from clones is safe for human consumption. In June, the agency urged companies that clone livestock to apply for approval if they want to sell the animals as food.
Officials plan to use the forthcoming National Research Council report, due out next spring, to help them craft a formal policy on whether companies will need FDA approval before they market cloned animals, similar to the clearance needed to sell pharmaceuticals.
In addition to scrutinising clones, the National Research Council also will review the effects of other bio-engineered animals on human health, the environment and animal welfare. For example, Infigen has created cloned cows that are producing therapeutic proteins in their milk. Another firm wants to sell salmon genetically modified to grow faster.
Other researchers will discuss the possibility of genetically altered insects, such as malaria-free mosquitoes.