Where’s the Beef?

It’s not often that American food companies join hands with environmental and consumer activists to call for greater government control over the nation’s food supply. But that’s just what happened last week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs, and goats are safe for consumers.

Despite the overwhelming science behind that finding, industry and activists have called for a ban on cloned food products. Naturally, you might think that lockstep agreement from such unlikely bedfellows is a little fishy. And you’d be right. The losers would be American consumers, farmers, and the environment.

Since 1996, when Dolly the sheep became the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, thousands of animal clones – including other sheep as well as cows, goats, pigs, horses, rabbits, and several other species – have been born and studied more intensely than the progeny of almost any other animal breeding technique. Critics claim the process will create monstrous new hybrids in some kind of barnyard “Boys from Brazil ,” but the reality is that consumer safety is not seriously in doubt.

FDA took more than six years investigating the matter, and its comprehensive, 968-page report shows that thousands of nutritional and other compositional comparisons reveal no differences between the safety of clones and conventionally bred animals. Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said at a news conference last Tuesday that agency scientists have “done a very extensive job of looking at anything that could possibly be a food hazard, and to be honest, we found nothing.”

Regulatory authorities in New Zealand , France , and the European Union agree. And government scientists in Australia , Canada , and Japan are expected to issue their own clean bills of health in the next year or two.

This overwhelming agreement among scientists should pave the way for animal clones – or to be more exact, their offspring – to come to market. Cloning is expensive, costing as much as $17,000 for cows and $4,000 for pigs. So, the vast majority of clones will be used just for breeding. Only their naturally produced off-spring should find their way into grocery stores during the next few decades.

Since there are no real questions about consumer safety, the critics have had to capitalize on zany scare stories and the public’s ambivalence about unfamiliar technologies. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) says that a “flood of milk from highly productive cloned cows is not good for the taxpayers” who buy surplus milk from dairy farmers. The group also claims cloning will make our kids fat because “[s]urplus milk is turned into high fat products that then go to school children.”

At one FDA meeting, CFA’s Carol Tucker Foreman even exploited religious and ethical concerns, criticizing the agency for studying food safety without first considering any ethical and religious implications. Of course, FDA is not legally permitted to consider religious objections, as the activists point out when the agency evaluates controversial products they want approved.

More importantly, humans have been using sophisticated scientific methods to control animal reproduction for decades, so we have already settled the ethical arguments critics of animal cloning now raise in opposition. Cloning is really just a technological extension of methods such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo transfer that are now commonplace in animal breeding, though it uses one animal’s DNA to create an exact genetic copy, essentially an identical twin born a generation later.

While it has been just a decade since Dolly was born, most of the individual steps that make cloning possible are a close to a century old. The transfer of living embryos from one animal’s womb to another, for example, dates to the 1800s. Cloning itself has been conducted with invertebrates, amphibians, and other non-mammalian animals since the turn of the 19 th century. And IVF was developed for animal breeding in the 1950s.

Even today’s proven method of cloning mammals – transferring an adult animal’s genetic material to an unfertilized egg – was first envisioned in the 1930s. Its use simply had to wait until these intermediate steps were perfected over the following decades. As a consequence, scientists know today far more about the health and well-being of cloned animals than the skeptics would have us believe.

Furthermore, none of the technical difficulties that cloning critics highlight is unique. Many clonal pregnancies result in miscarriage, and some clones have neonatal health problems, so critics insist that moving forward now is inhumane and unethical. But, each of these problems is also present in other assisted reproductive technologies, such as IVF and embryo transfer, as well as natural mating. Animal breeders have managed them for decades, so their presence in cloned animals presents no unique ethical or consumer safety issues.

The abundant evidence of safety is why the critics have had to focus attention away from the science. Instead they ask, even if we can clone animals safely, why should we?

The answer is simple. Breeders can produce better and safer food by cloning rare animals that produce leaner meat, for example, or are especially resistant to common livestock diseases. Researchers in Asia have even cloned a cow that appears to be resistant to mad cow disease. The ability to drastically reduce illness among animals and to improve consumer safety arguably makes cloning more, not less humane than traditional breeding.

But that’s not all. Producing more meat or milk per animal helps reduce farming’s ecological footprint by, for example, allowing for a reduction in the size of herds and lowering the amount of waste the animals generate. And cloning is already being used to help increase populations of threatened and endangered animals, such as the gaur and banteng, which are related to our beef and dairy cattle. Many scientists hope that, one day, cloning can help recover endangered species such as tigers, rhinos, and pandas.

Still, the activists’ antics have scared one group of influential Americans: the dairy and packaged food industries. Rising demand in the U.S. for organic products makes many food companies believe consumers will reject meat and milk from clones. Others fear a trade backlash from technophobic consumers in places like France and Italy . That’s why several major food companies, including the largest U.S. meat producer Tyson Foods, have already announced that they had “no immediate plans” to buy cloned livestock.

They may not have the chance. Ever since 2001, animal cloners have complied with a “voluntary” moratorium on selling food products from clones while they awaited FDA’s safety study. Yet, even as FDA unveiled its final assessment last week, the U.S. Agriculture Department bowed to food industry pressure and asked to extend the moratorium until consumer concerns could be resolved – possibly as long as two or three more years. And Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski introduced legislation that would keep cloned animals off the market indefinitely.

Knowing that they are ultimately at the mercy of consumers and retailers, Texas-based Viagen and Iowa-based TransOva Genetics – two of three private sector U.S. cloning companies – developed a system to track cloned animals so that farmers, meat packers, and retailers who wish to do so can avoid them. John Kleiboeker, of the Missouri Beef Industry Council told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “the FDA may say it’s not required, but consumers may want labels, so discerning marketers will do it.”

Kleiboeker is right, of course. From organic milk and free trade coffee to kosher and halal meats, many consumers have shown a preference for foods produced in certain ways. But, that is exactly why extending the moratorium is unnecessary. American farmers and the food industry have proven perfectly capable of segregating foods from various new and old production systems whenever a genuine consumer demand for it exists. Whether it’s religious, ethical, or environmental concerns, all that is needed is for regulators to make a science-based judgment on safety and then get out of the way.