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Cloned foods need labeling Which little piggy went to market should draw much wider discussion

All fast-food hamburgers already look pretty much the same. That doesn't necessarily mean they should be genetically identical.

Food and Drug Administration tentative conclusions that milk and meat from some cloned farm animals are safe to eat could lead to that outcome, and that could be a major step toward a revolution in food marketing and consumption practices. It also could trigger some queasiness, for a lot of consumers. The government should go slow on this -- and, at the very least, ensure that cloned foodstuffs reaching markets are adequately labeled.

The agency's approval of cloned livestock was signaled in a scientific journal article published online earlier this month. Consumer advocates have correctly reacted forcefully. There are really two issues here -- whether food made through cloning is safe, and whether consumers should be kept in the dark about what they are eating. Science can guide the first decision, but the second is a policy matter that should be decided in favor of letting consumers make their own choices, not in favor of industry marketability concerns.

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, contends the FDA has gone astray. The law, she said, makes the FDA responsible for ensuring no unsafe food is sold. Somehow that has been twisted to imply that if a food is deemed safe the public is obligated to eat it, which might be upheld in court but is bad public policy.

The FDA should require that special labels for food from clones or their offspring are attached to such products. Instead, the agency has indicated that no special labels are needed. That would amount to federal approval of marketplace deception, which is simply stomach-turning.

Science may well support cloning of livestock. Expensive cloned animals aren't likely to be slaughtered for consumption, but cloning the best and largest animals would enhance herdsmen's ability to produce good offspring for market -- a kind of enhancement of genetic breeding practices using the old-fashioned way of conceiving livestock offspring. That could be a boon for food production here and exports to food-poor areas of the world.

But putting cloned milk and meat on the market with no identifying label information would eliminate the option to avoid such products. Gallup Research Organization reports have shown that more than 60 percent of Americans think animal cloning is immoral, and other independent polls report consumers would not knowingly eat the products even after the FDA approves them.

As the Consumer Federation of America has suggested, the national discussion over the creation of cloned and transgenic animals should include ethicists and religious leaders. It's not just science. It also should be a choice.

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