FDA officials said in recent press material that the agency is seeking public comment on the issue of animal cloning to help the agency form its final recommendation on food products from cloned animals.
Bring on the cloneburgers?
So what does all of this mean for those of us buying and consuming milk, pork and beef?
"It's unlikely that cloned meat will wind up at the dinner table anytime soon," said Jeff Semler, agricultural and natural resources extension educator for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.
"It's too expensive," Semler said. "Even if we could eat (a clone), I could produce livestock for less."
Semler, who used beef as an example, said a healthy, conventionally bred calf can be purchased for about $500.
Data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service showed that conventionally bred beef retailed nationally from a range of $393 to $405 in 2006.
Comparatively, ViaGen, a company that clones animals, will clone a cow for $15,000. The price drops to $12,000 for a second animal.
According to the company's Web site, farmers are asked to ship an ear clipping or a small biopsy sample of the animal. The company uses the sample to produce a clone, which will be delivered to the farmer when the calf is 7 months old.
"I don't know about you, but I'm not cutting up a $15,000 animal," Semler said.
According to The Associated Press, there are at least 150 livestock clones living in the U.S.
According to the FDA, the main use of cloning would be for breeding animals, not food.
Farmers, the FDA said, could upgrade the overall quality of their herds by providing more copies of the best animals in the group. The offspring of cloned animals likely would be introduced into the food chain, not the clone itself.
Cloning also could be used to protect endangered species, according to CloneSafety.org, a Web site sponsored by animal-cloning companies, including ViaGen, in cooperation with the industry trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization.
But there are drawbacks.
The FDA notes several problems of cloning in its draft risk assessment.
According to FDA researchers, cloned embryos are more likely to develop abnormalities and are more likely to suffer from large offspring syndrome, when the fetus grows too large in the uterus.
As a group, the FDA notes that livestock clones tend to have more health problems at birth and are more likely than conventionally bred animals to die right after birth.
But the FDA concludes that these problems aren't unique to cloning and are seen in animals bred conventionally.
The exactness of a cloned animal to its original is also a source of debate.
"If I cloned myself, my copy isn't going to be me," Semler said. It's not going to be raised in the same environment. You can't clone the environment."
Despite the FDA's research, many trade organizations, consumer advocates and politicians oppose any endorsement of eating cloned meat, claiming that it is harmful to animals and has not been proven safe for consumers.
The Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group, voiced its disapproval in a statement released shortly after the FDA made its announcement Dec. 28.
Humane Society officials said they were reflecting concerns from consumers about the welfare of cloned animals and their surrogate mothers.
The Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group for representing consumers, has urged supermarkets not to sell cloned milk and meat products from cloned animals. The advocacy group, in a recent statement, also suggested that cloning cows will do little to lower the price of milk and said that U.S. farmers already produce "more milk than we drink."
The debate also has entered the political realm, as many public officials have come out in opposition to animal cloning.
U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., issued a statement opposing the endorsement of the use of meat, milk and other food from cloned animals shortly after the FDA announced such food products are safe to eat.
"I hope the American people take advantage of the public comment period to share with FDA officials their concerns about the use of food from cloned animals," Mikulski said in the statement.
Mikulski is a member of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), which includes the FDA in its jurisdiction.
FDA officials say the agency will continue to monitor the development of clones and their offspring, as more data become available.
Meanwhile, the FDA is accepting public comment, which can be submitted electronically at www.fda.gov/dockets/ecomments, or by writing to the Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.
The draft risk assessment is available at www.fda.gov/cvm/cloning.