Regulatory approval could catalyze the nascent U.S. cloning industry, but leading firms say growth would come slowly as they battle to win consumers over to the concept of food from cloned animals.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could issue a final ruling as early as next week that meat and milk from cloned animals poses no special risks to consumers.
Mark Walton, president of Texas-based ViaGen, which clones cows and other animals, is hoping the ruling will finally open the door for greater cloning in animal agriculture.
“Only after that will the community really open up and begin to embrace it on a larger scale,” Walton said.
A little over a decade after scientists in Scotland rolled out Dolly, a sheep that was the world’s first cloned mammal, the U.S. industry remains small with just three major firms.
The ruling would be good news for proponents of the technology and would presumably bring an end to the voluntary ban on marketing food made from cloned animals or their offspring.
“It is an endorsement that will give producers confidence to use the technology,” said David Faber, president of Trans Ova, a cloning firm based in Iowa.
Trans Ova Genetics has produced close to half of the 570 cloned animals, mostly cows, that exist today in the United States, a minuscule part of the overall U.S. cattle herd.
But even with a government green light, Faber expects the industry to produce only a couple of hundred cloned animals a year in the foreseeable future, mostly due to the time and money required to clone a prized animal and wait for it to produce offspring that would be used for milk or meat.
That could take four or five years.
“The economics are going to dictate its demand,” he said.
ViaGen sells a single cloned animal for $17,500, but reduces prices for customers who buy more than one clone.
“We’re still very early on the technology adoption curve,” said Walton.
Due to those costs, industry officials don’t expect cloned animals to be used to produce milk or to be slaughtered.
Cloning advocates insist milk and meat from cloned animals will be no different from foods derived from conventionally bred animals.
“I see real opportunities (in) improved consistency, reducing variability of food chain,” said Jerry Baker, CEO of the Federation of Animal Science Societies.
But some critics say the science remains shaky, raising doubts about the safety of the technology and the ethics of reproducing ever-more-productive animals.
One recent survey showed that consumers are less skeptical about cloning technology than they were in the past, but those with favorable views still make up less than a quarter of consumers.
Faber and others are betting consumers will be won over by a positive regulatory ruling.
“The FDA has been the gold standard in the world for food and drug safety ... Once they do provide a decision, it would further move acceptance along,” he said.