Cloned or Noncloned Meat: The Choice May Not Be Ours
By Valerie Yeager
Vol. 9 No. 7 P. 44
Some argue cloning will produce healthier beef and dairy products; others call it Frankenfood. But that and other issues aside, should cloned animal products enter the food supply unlabeled?
Dolly shook the world. If a sheep could be cloned, what would be next? Your beloved family pet? People? The options seemed endless … and terrifying. Cloning can change the life cycle as we know it, and now its ramifications are extending to the food industry.
Between Christmas 2006 and New Year’s Day 2007, the FDA released a long-awaited draft risk assessment report concluding that it is safe to eat the dairy and meat products of cloned cattle, swine, and goats and their noncloned offspring. From December 28, 2006, to May 3, 2007, the floor was open for individuals and organizations to comment on the FDA’s draft risk assessment. If the comments were generally favorable, the proposal would possibly be approved following this public comment period.
Advocates of livestock cloning claim the animals will be disease-resistant, provide larger quantities of milk, and produce leaner and more tender meat. But skeptics argue that too many unanswered questions remain concerning food safety and animal welfare.
Does the FDA have enough evidence to declare that cloning animals for meat and dairy is a safe and worthwhile practice? And, possibly even more surprising, the FDA has concluded that products from cloned animals won’t require labeling, leaving consumers in the dark regarding the origin of their meat and milk products. In the wake of the recent Escherichia coli outbreak and peanut butter recalls, American consumers are already increasingly distrustful of the food supply. But this is not only a debate about food safety; it’s also a question of ethics.
In 2001, the FDA asked farmers to voluntarily refrain from marketing any meat or milk from cloned animals or their offspring until safety was proven.1 A 2002 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report found “no current evidence” that cloned animal products were unfit to eat, but it recommended more studies be completed. In 2003, the FDA declared such products “likely” safe but made no final ruling.
A 2004 NAS report states, “Since there is no evidence that food from cloned animals poses any increased health risk to the consumer, it should be concluded that food from cloned animals should be approved for consumption. However, the paucity of evidence in the literature on this topic makes it impossible to provide scientific evidence to support this position.”2
The lack of conclusive scientific evidence has made both experts and the general public apprehensive about approving the safety of meat and milk products in the past. Will the FDA’s draft be accepted this time around?
Gary Weaver, DVM, PhD, director of the program on agriculture and animal health policy at the Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy at the University of Maryland, explains the animal cloning process: “In animal cloning, the genetic material from the male donor with the desirable traits is not diluted, as it is with natural reproduction when all genetic materials from donor and recipient are randomly mixed. ... The newest, most promising cloning method first isolates a donor animal cell nucleus [containing virtually all of the cell’s genetic material], then places it into a recipient’s egg with its nucleus removed. The resulting embryo is transferred to a female to carry to term.”
An animal clone is essentially an exact genetic copy of a donor animal, with no genetic manipulation or any genetic material added or removed during the process.
By retaining the most desirable traits of the male donor, the strongest and healthiest animals are reproduced. The current appeal of cloned animals to the livestock industry largely lies in their role as breeders or milk producers. Ken White, PhD, professor in the department of animal, dairy, and veterinary sciences at Utah State University, says, “I would eat a steak from a cloned animal and not lose a nanosecond worrying about it. But no one is going to do all the work required to clone an animal just to eat it. It would be far too expensive. The place I see for cloning in the industry is being able to create multiple offspring of superior animals that would then be used for conventional breeding. Will the offspring of clones have the characteristics that made the original cell donors exceptional animals? That’s what we are trying to learn, and that’s where cloning can impact the livestock industry.”
Only approximately 600 cloned cows, swine, and goats are believed to presently exist in the United States. One of these cows can cost as much as $15,000, and a pig $4,000.
Those in favor of cloning assert that the technology will allow farmers and ranchers to accelerate the reproduction of their most productive livestock; produce healthier, lower fat animals; minimize the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and other chemicals; and protect endangered species.
Weaver argues in defense of cloned animals over traditionally bred livestock: “USDA prime beef, currently about 3% of all beef steaks, could become our only grade of beef—and at affordable prices. Also, fewer superior dairy cows could produce the same quantity of milk while making less animal waste.”
Weaver even supports cloning when ethics enters the limelight of the discussion. “Some organizations claim that animal cloning is unnatural for human intervention, but that bridge was crossed many centuries ago. For millennia, people have closely controlled domestic animal production to develop specific animal breeds for companionship, food, and work,” he says. “Today, all breeds of cattle, dogs, cats, pigs, horses, chickens, plus all other domestic animals, are the direct result of intensive, unending human intervention using selective animal breeding programs. None of today’s domestic animal breeds would ever have developed using only natural selection and random breeding. There would be no Holstein cows for superior milk production or Angus cattle for high-quality beef. There would most certainly be no Siamese cats or Chihuahua dogs if humans had let ‘nature take its course.’”
Weaver agrees with the FDA’s decision to declare products from cloned animals and their noncloned offspring safe. “FDA experts have carefully studied all available scientific reports about animal cloning for more than five years,” he says. But is five years enough? What about possible long-term effects?
Anti-Cloning Lacking Evidence
According to the FDA’s Web site, the “FDA neither supports nor opposes cloning food-producing animals. FDA’s job is to protect public health.” But the agency makes generic claims using nonscientific standards, such as that meat and milk products from cloned animals are “virtually indistinguishable” from conventional livestock.
Jeffrey M. Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, says the FDA cannot be trusted. “The FDA’s recent announcement declaring milk and meat from cloned animals as safe reminds us of their 1992 approval of GM [genetically modified] crops. When the agency’s internal files were made public years later, they revealed that the FDA’s GMO [genetically modified organisms] policy was dictated by corporate manipulation, not sound science. Warnings by government scientists were ignored by political appointees from the biotech industry. And, like GMOs, the FDA does not want labels on cloned food, thereby forcing the entire population into their dangerous, uncontrolled experiment. GMOs are linked to many health risks, such as allergies, immune system dysfunction, potentially precancerous cell growth, stunted organs, and death,” he says. “The safety information on cloned milk and meat is totally insufficient—much of it based, for example, on meaningless industry studies measuring protein and fat content. If health problems do arise, it may be quite difficult to identify cloned foods as the cause.”
The FDA provides a general response on its Web site to those who believe more long-term studies should be completed before cloning is approved for food purposes: “Cloning doesn’t put any new substances into an animal, so there’s no ‘new’ substance to test. Feeding milk or meat from clones to lab animals as part of a regular diet wouldn’t let us tell whether any negative outcomes observed were due to the food from clones or something else the lab animals came across. It isn’t possible to have someone [or even lab animals] eat only meat or drink only milk. Doing so would not provide a healthful diet and would likely cause illness. Food scientists, toxicologists, and regulators have faced this problem before and decided that long-term feeding trials of whole foods don’t give meaningful results.”3
Cloning technology is far from perfect. On average, 96% to 99% of cloning attempts are unsuccessful, and hundreds of animals suffer in the process of creating just one healthy clone. Also, the vast majority of cloned fetuses develop abnormally and die in the womb, often jeopardizing the health of the surrogate mothers. The few clones that survive birth often die shortly thereafter from any number of serious physical or physiological defects, including abnormally large bodies, compromised immune systems, and malformed organs. Animal rights’ activists are pushing for the abolishment of cloning.
Sick clones are not only an ethical question but can also lead to nutrition concerns. “We know that cloned animals have high death rates and are often sick; their offspring may also suffer deformities or problems. Sick animals may be treated with drugs such as antibiotics, steroid hormones, and growth factors, which in turn may end up in our food supply or environment,” says Smith, author of Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods and Seeds of Deception.
To the dismay of the health conscious, the FDA currently has no plans of labeling products from cloned animals. Sigrid Fry-Revere, JD, PhD, director of bioethics studies at the Cato Institute, believes consuming products from cloned animals or their noncloned offspring should be left to the consumer’s discretion. But without proper labeling, consumers can’t choose because they won’t know.
“The FDA has no business basing its policies on the moral status of animals or religious objections to tampering with nature. Such ethical questions, in a pluralist society like ours, are best left up to individual conscience. Those who disagree on religious or moral grounds should be free to speak out, boycott, or not participate in the objectionable activity, but those who do not object should be equally free to produce food from clones and/or eat it,” says Fry-Revere.
The Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act only allows the FDA to require labeling for altered foods or foods with additives, and meat from cloned animals doesn’t fit the definition of either. So what can be done?
Fry-Revere offers a suggestion: “Nutritionists who care about whether meat comes from cloned animals or not should make their concerns known, not to the FDA or Congress, but to the meat producers, distributors, and, most importantly, to their meat retailers. Demand to know or refuse to purchase meat that isn’t guaranteed to be ‘clone free.’ And before you could get anyone at the FDA to return a call or your congressman to agree to discuss the matter, the signs and labels will start appearing at the meat counter, in ads for grocery stores, and on the meat packages. It would be stupid for those producers who don’t use cloned meat not to capitalize on that fact—it couldn’t do anything but help their business to add a sticker that costs less than a penny that says ‘Not from cloned animals.’”
In addition to sustaining consumer confidence in the food system, labeling protects the entry of cloned animals and their offspring into the organic food system. It also protects organic livestock producers from financial losses associated with the accidental introduction of cloned animals into the organic herd.
Animal cloning is not allowed for organic production under the USDA National Organic Program because it relies on cell fusion, which is explicitly prohibited in organic production. Clearly, cloning is impossible under natural conditions. If labeling isn’t required and clones aren’t tracked, anti-cloning consumers may be forced to purchase organic meat just to avoid cloned meats. In this circumstance, the idea of cloning creating lower prices for high-quality meats may not be the case, especially considering a 2005 survey conducted for the International Food Information Council, that found that 63% of Americans would not buy cloned food even if it were labeled as being safe.
While advanced cloning technology is impressive, larger issues of food safety and ethics must be taken into consideration before cloning can be deemed a safe way to produce meat and milk products. “If implemented on a wide scale, cloning reduces genetic diversity, exposing our food supply to widespread losses from disease or environmental changes. Approving food from cloned animals is dangerous and irresponsible,” says Smith.
So is fooling with Mother Nature to produce higher quality and supposedly healthier meat and milk products worth the potential risks? The debate is unlikely to slow down anytime soon.
— Valerie Yeager is an editor and freelance writer in Philadelphia.
1. Roosevelt M. Would you eat a clone? Time. 2005;165(24):47.
2. Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Board on Life Sciences, Earth and Life Studies. Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. The National Academies Press. 2004.
3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Animal Cloning: FAQs About Cloning for Consumers.” Available here. Last accessed April 27, 2007.