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Published Feb. 11, 2008

Given the food scares of the past couple of years, you would think that food-safety regulators would be arming consumers with even more information about what they put on the dinner table. Instead, the federal government is trying to keep information off meat and milk labels.

The latest decision involves cloned animals. The Food and Drug Administration ruled in January that meat and milk from cloned animals are safe and would not have to carry a label identifying the source. Yet polls show most Americans are still concerned about the safety of cloned food and want to know what they're eating.

In a wimpy response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has asked producers to voluntarily keep cloned animals off the market, though not their offspring. Even then, it may be too late.

"This is a fairy tale that this technology is not being used and is not already in the food chain," Donald Coover, an Illinois cattleman, told the Washington Post, typifying the disdain with which the powerful food industry treats federal regulators.

While meat or milk from a cloned animal might be safe to eat, the label issue is more complicated. People who have ethical or even religious objections to cloning should not be tricked into consuming those products. And there are still doubts about the long-term effect cloning has on the quality of cattle stocks.

Even FDA researchers found that most cloned animals die before making it to adulthood. A clone is genetically identical to its parent, but that means defective traits could be passed on as well. Critics of the FDA decision fear that cloned animals might require more antibiotics to stay healthy or be more susceptible to bacterial infections that could threaten human health.

"There is simply too little data for consumers to be completely confident that eating cloned food is safe," said Michael Hansen, a scientist with Consumers Union, which wants those products labeled and tracked. The FDA admits it based its findings on current methods of cloning, which are almost certain to change.

There is no need to turn back the science of food production. Instead, regulators should get out of the pockets of the food industry and start informing and protecting consumers. If cloned animals make it into the food supply, consumers should be told and given a chance to avoid those products.