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Cloned Meat Ruling Sparks Optimism, Outcry in U.S.

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
January 3, 2007
 
The announcement last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that products from clones are safe to eat has reignited debate over the safety and ethics of animal cloning.

After analyzing hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, the FDA deemed that milk and meat from cloned livestock and their offspring are no different than regular meat and dairy products sold in the U.S.

Gary Weaver, of the University of Maryland Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy in College Park, says cloning technology could improve the overall quality of supermarket products.

"When I buy steaks it's always a gamble," he said. "You can have two that look the same, [but] one is tender and the other is shoe leather."

With cloning "in ten years we might all be eating prime beef for a reasonable price."

Only 3 percent of U.S. beef is currently labeled as prime—the government's highest rating. Such high-quality meats are found mostly in upscale restaurants.

Many consumer groups argue that FDA's evaluation of cloned meats hasn't been thorough enough.

What's more, the groups say, the practice of cloning still raises too many ethical issues, including the possibility that large corporations could patent the genes of food animals.

George Siemon is CEO of the Organic Valley farmers cooperative in LaFarge, Wisconsin, which represents 922 farmers in 27 states.

"Allowing animal cloning … to be patented by profit-driven companies has too many unknown risks," Siemon said. "[It] is a detriment to farmers and the future of our food supply."

Clone Wars

A report with the U.S. government's final say on the controversial issue is expected by the end of this year.

If the government does approve cloned meat for sale, such products wouldn't hit supermarket shelves for at least five years, the University of Maryland's Weaver said.

In total only 600 cloned pigs, cows, and goats are believed to exist right now in the U.S.

Because of their rarity and price—some animals can cost upward of $170,000 (U.S.) each—clones would be mostly used as breeding stock to pass on naturally occurring, desirable traits, Weaver said.

For example, the fat content in beef and pork could be controlled to create healthier meat. The technology could also give rise to disease-resistant cattle (related photo: Kansas cattle).

Despite the FDA ruling, consumer groups argue that scientific evidence that cloned foods are safe for humans remains superficial.

In a statement released just before FDA's announcement, the nonprofit advocacy group the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., cited a number of health and safety problems related to cloned livestock that the group says the agency has not properly addressed.

People eating cloned meat would be exposed to higher amounts of animal hormones related to the cloning process, the group says.

The animals themselves would suffer from the high incidence of disease and birth defects currently recorded in cloned animals.

"There is widespread concern among Americans and scientific concern that cloned food may not be safe and that cloning will increase animal cruelty," Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, said in the release.

"We intend to pursue our legal action to compel FDA to address the many unanswered questions around cloned food."

Mixed Reactions

Meanwhile, Austin, Texas-based ViaGen is one of a handful of U.S. companies already working on livestock clones.

The company has successfully duplicated 250 farm animals in recent years, including individual horses, cows, and pigs.

(Related news: "Ten Years After Dolly, No Human Clones, But a Barnyard of Copies" [July 5, 2006].)

ViaGen president Mark Walton said cloning is just another tool that enables farmers to breed their best animals.

For decades other assisted reproductive technologies have been used in agriculture, such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.

In fact, he said, 90 percent of U.S. dairy cows are produced via artificial insemination and nearly half of the country's beef cattle are born through assisted reproduction.

Though cloning is a hot topic, he said, most people have little understanding of what it is, how it's done, and whether it's useful.

"Unfortunately," Walton said, "those who turn to the popular media for insight about this new breeding technology are as likely to encounter myths as they are to find facts."

So far consumer reaction to cloned foods appears to be mixed, especially in light of the fact that FDA is unlikely to require cloned products to be specially labeled.

A University of Maryland survey released last month found that six out of ten U.S. shoppers would consider buying meat and milk from cloned animals or their offspring if the FDA determined the products were safe.

But a December 2006 survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, an independent advisory group, found that 64 percent of those polled were uncomfortable with animal cloning.

And a survey conducted by the International Dairy Foods Association last summer found that 14 percent of women shoppers would turn away from all dairy products if milk from clones is introduced into the food supply.

Connie Tipton, president of the Washington, D.C.-based trade group, said it's too soon to know if dairy farmers will embrace cloning.

"There is currently no consumer benefit in milk from cloned cows," she said.

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