COLUMBIA, Mo. — Food products from cloned animals are safe for human consumption, according to a "preliminary risk assessment" recently issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It will be a while, however, before consumers start seeing meat and milk from cloned animals in their local supermarkets, University of Missouri specialists said.

"It's important to understand what the FDA does and doesn't do," said Nick Kalaitzandonakes, MU professor of agricultural economics. "The FDA is not regulating on the basis of ethical considerations or whether consumers will adopt a product. Ultimately, those who market the products have to decide whether those are issues and how they have to deal with them.

"Historically, the FDA's primary role is to determine whether there are safety risks in new foodstuffs," he said.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to widespread marketing of cloned animal foods is the cost, said MU animal scientist Jerry Taylor. "In my opinion, it's of no risk to consumers, but the technology is so expensive that it will have very limited application in the industry."

A cloned animal can cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce, said Leonie Marks, MU assistant professor of agricultural economics. "If any food product from cloned animals makes it to the market, it will probably be milk," she said. "These animals cost so much to produce that you're not going to sell them for meat."

Taylor said the principle application would be "when you have very valuable animals, like a bull in an artificial insemination program that might die prematurely. It could possibly be re-created by this technology. It will have a very limited direct impact on the food chain, because in a beef cattle industry that has millions of cattle, no more than a few hundred animals would fall into that category. It would be the naturally produced progeny of those cattle that would be consumed by the public."

Kalaitzandonakes said the FDA uses "the principle of substantial equivalence: Is the product as safe as what's already on the market? Risk is a relative concept, so you need a benchmark. The benchmark is what's already out there."

Marks said the issue might be comparable to the one that surrounded the FDA approval 10 years ago of BST injections for dairy cattle. "It's chemically identical to the growth hormone the animals naturally produce, but there was a some concern, when it was introduced in 1993, about both the food safety and the moral aspects." Now, she said, "The majority of U.S. consumers consume milk produced by cows injected with recombinant BST."

The FDA and the USDA, which oversee the safety of the food supply, "generally have a very high level of trust," Marks said. "Either you spend a lot of time doing research into what is good and what is bad and what you want to buy, or you trust the regulation of the food supply. Those agencies have a good track record of monitoring the safety of the food supply in general, and specifically biotech foods."

Kalaitzandonakes agreed. "The FDA has the job of safeguarding the public from hazards, and that's what they've been doing since 1906," he said. "The report is preliminary, so they'll continue to assess the research. Public attitude and acceptance begins with that."

Forrest Rose is an Extension and ag information specialist with the University of Missouri.