In the latest volley in the food wars, the FDA determined in January that meat from cloned cows, pigs, and goats (and their offspring) is safe to eat -- and therefore there's no need to label it. That argument hasn't convinced some consumer advocates and members of Congress. It hasn't swayed many Americans, either: Two-thirds don't like the whole idea of animal cloning, while more than 40 percent believe that serving the results at the dinner table is a bad idea, according to a 2006 survey released by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
"There are concerns about safety, but it's also a question of moral discomfort," says Michael Fernandez, who was in charge of the Pew Initiative at the time of the survey. The skeptics are pushing lawmakers to force meat producers to label cloned meat and dairy products as such. "Consumers should have the right to refuse, whether it's justified by the science or not," insists Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a nutrition professor at New York University.
If the term "cloned meat" makes you wince, take a deep breath. Cloning is expensive -- costing upward of $30,000 per animal -- so it's limited mainly to prize cattle and horses. No one thinks meat from clones will arrive in any quantity for years. "For now, it's extremely cost-prohibitive, with technology still in the research phase," explains Karen Batra, director of public affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The breather will give consumers a chance to get up to speed on what's at stake. As it turns out, the fight over cloning goes beyond human-health issues, to the ethics of how we produce our food.
You've probably been eating cloned food all your life. Most of the bananas, potatoes, apples, and grapes at supermarkets are clones, having been produced through various "vegetative propagation" techniques designed to ensure consistent quality and get produce to market quickly.
Most of us feel differently about animals than we do about plants, however. When scientists cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996, they reaped widespread criticism, much of it driven by the fear that humans might be next in line. But in the past decade, animal cloning has only expanded. To create an animal clone, scientists remove the DNA from an egg cell, replace it with DNA from the cell of a donor animal (the one they want to clone), then implant the egg in a surrogate mother. A genetic copy of the donor animal -- a clone -- is born. Although some people equate cloning with genetic modification, it's entirely unrelated; the animal's DNA is not altered at all, unlike that of the genetically modified corn that's become part and parcel of the food supply.
Given the exorbitant cost of cloning, you might wonder what the appeal is for breeders. As Batra explains it, it's simply another tool in their kit, which includes artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and other methods designed to ensure that the best genes of an animal carry on. But rather than turning every $30,000 investment into hamburger, breeders will likely keep clones for breeding and sell their progeny instead. So what appears in our food supply will mainly be the offspring of clones, produced by conventional reproduction. (After their breeding years end, however, clones may be slaughtered for meat.)
Regardless of where clones are in the family tree, consumer advocates have pressed the government to study the safety issues. The National Academy of Sciences said in 2002 that certain cloned products were no danger to the public. A year later, the FDA announced that milk and meat from cloned pigs, goats, and cattle was likely safe to eat. Some groups argued for more data, so the FDA spent several years taking a closer look. Their conclusion? "Meat and milk from cow, pig, and goat clones are as safe to eat as the food we eat every day," Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, said in a statement.
Though some consumer groups still argue for more research, many former critics were assuaged by the FDA's most recent report, at least on the safety front. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, for instance, found that the FDA has "satisfactorily answered the safety question." But the cloning controversy isn't over. As Nestle points out, "just because it is safe doesn't mean it's acceptable."
About 95 percent of clones don't survive gestation. Of those that do survive, many die during their first year of life, which outrages animal-rights advocates. "Clones die from respiratory, digestive, circulatory, nervous, muscular, skeletal, and placental abnormalities," explains Lee Hall, legal director for Friends of Animals, an advocacy organization based in Connecticut. The FDA's January report counters that "none of these abnormalities is unique to clones," and adds that these traits aren't passed on to their offspring.
Experts such as Andrew Weil, M.D., point to another concern: Safe or not, cloned meat and dairy products will come from factory farms that threaten the environment and make use of hormones and other additives. "There may not be a specific danger in cloned meat," Weil notes. "But it's all part of an unhealthy trend in food production." Cloning, he and other critics say, increases the control of factory farms, decreases genetic diversity, and does little to encourage small-scale and organic farming.
On the flip side, you can rest assured that organic meat and milk are clone-free. Although clones could theoretically be raised using organic methods, the USDA has ruled that meat and dairy products from cloned animals and their offspring cannot carry the organic label.
Both cloning skeptics and opponents back the labeling of cloned meat so that consumers can make a real choice. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), for instance, is pushing an amendment to the Consumer Product Safety Commission bill that would make such labeling mandatory. Joe Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., says, "The public wants more information before clones are released into the food supply." On that point, it seems, everyone can agree.
Text by Andrew Lawler