What's the Beef? ; the FDA Weighs Whether to Allow Meat and Milk from Cloned Animals to Enter the Food Supply. Opponents Fear the Impact

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In the beginning, there was Dolly. Since then, one by one, beef and dairy cattle, pigs, and goats have joined the Scottish sheep in a 21st century ark of cloned farm animals.

But while cloned animals have become common in the lab, they have yet to make it to the dinner table. That could change if the Food and Drug Administration overturns a ban on the consumption of cloned livestock. In a few years, their meat or milk could become a regular staple on America's menu.

The results could be significant: higher-quality meat and dairy products, foods engineered to be more nutritious, and possibly lower grocery prices, thanks to the arrival of more productive animals. The infant farm cloning industry is chomping at the bit to commercialize its research.

But consumer and animal advocates worry about the impact that cloning could have on human health, not to mention the animals themselves. There is no evidence "that food from cloned animals is safe," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America in a statement. "The FDA has only limited data on the composition of food from cloned animals, and there have been no feeding studies to see the impact of long-term consumption. All of the data come from groups who support animal cloning."

So far, the signs for the industry look positive. Last October, the FDA said that food products from cloned livestock were essentially the same as those from conventional animals. It is working on a risk-assessment plan that, for now, indicates there is little risk to humans who eat cloned livestock. The release of the final assessment has yet to be scheduled.

Only a few hundred cloned cattle currently live in the United States, mostly on research farms, so a repeal of the ban would have little immediate effect on the food supply. However, dropping the barrier would dismantle a hurdle that has kept the industry in the starting blocks, proponents say.

"There's no question that the voluntary ban ... is holding the development of this business back," says Don Coover, a rancher from Galesburg, Kan., and owner of SEK Genetics, a cattle-genetics company with cloning partnerships. He has financed several cloning projects, including six clones of the high-performance bull, Full Flush. Full Flush's calves are healthy 2-year-olds and have increased in value more than five times their original production cost of $20,000, he says.

Cloned cattle like them could be used to breed uniform, high- quality offspring. "You could make animals with less fatty meat or more nutritious milk," says Lisa Dry, communications director of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington. "Or they could be more resistant to diseases, which could make them safer for humans to eat."

Mr. Coover, who sells bull semen for artificial insemination, says there is a growing demand for that product from top-quality bulls. "There's quite a lot of interest in buying semen from the clones, but we're telling people that we're not going to do that," he says. "It's the obligation of the FDA to make a decision that is in the best interest of ... the producers and the broader public. …