The U.S. government said food from healthy cloned animals and their offspring does not appear to pose a health risk. But they are not ready to approve food production from such animals.

In a draft report, U.S. food regulators say cloned animals that develop normally appear as healthy as their conventional counterparts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, states that meat or milk from clones and their normally-bred offspring are not riskier to consume than food from uncloned animals.

Deputy FDA chief Lester Crawford said the report is based on a study last year by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and nearly 100 cattle studies it has received since. "You evaluate if the animal is changed in any way that would affect food safety or if the physiology of the animal gives any indication that this is a different kind of animal than the parent of the offspring - the parent in this case being the animal that is cloned. There's no data to suggest there are any changes that would be deleterious, and therefore the assumption is that the food is safe," Mr. Crawford said.

But Mr. Crawford said the agency is withholding permission to produce food from clones pending a detailed risk assessment by agency scientists and public hearings.

Consumer groups are expressing opposition to the FDA's preliminary position. At the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, food policy expert Carol Tucker Foreman said the FDA's view on safety is not convincing. "The food industry doesn't want these products. Sixty percent of Americans, every time there is a poll, say they are opposed to animal cloning. I'm not sure why the public interest has been shoved into the back seat in order to move ahead precipitously, in my view, to help the cloned animal industry move ahead," she said.

Cloning involves removing the nucleus of an egg cell of an animal and replacing it with the nucleus of any cell from an adult. The reconstructed egg is implanted into the womb and develops into an exact genetic duplicate of the adult. The technique is hailed as a way to reproduce animals with desirable traits.

However, cloned animals frequently have physical abnormalities and often do not live to adulthood. Ms. Foreman said this is inhumane and adds that the FDA does not appear to be addressing this issue.

"Making cloned animals is very different from making biotech corn. Dealing with sentient beings raises morale and ethical issues," she explained.

While the FDA review is pending, the agency is asking U.S. livestock producers and biotechnology companies to continue their voluntary moratorium on food production from clones. Their trade group, The Biotechnology Industry Organization, said it hopes for a quick decision by the government that will allow their clients to market their products.

The FDA's Lester Crawford agreed that movement is necessary. "We do need to get on with a decision because this is an industry that has been developing. So we are having to be a little 'iffy' [uncertain] about when we'll make the decision, but we'll do it as expeditiously as we can," he said.

Mr. Crawford said if the FDA review ultimately cannot assure the safety of food from cloned animals, it will not certify its production.