Business Administration Education Guide

Monday, January 08, 2007

Do you care if your eating cloned meat?

The FDA's announcement last week that meat and milk from some cloned animals is likely perfectly safe to eat has biotechnology companies jumping for joy. Cloned-animal products could be welcome in U.S. grocery stores by the end of 2007. The fact that 64 percent of U.S. consumers apparently don't want the stuff hasn't yet dimmed the excitement (Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology survey, 2006); and since the FDA won't be requiring any special labeling for the products, maybe it never will.

Technically, you may already be eating it. Livestock cloning has been going on since at least 2002. In 2003, the FDA issued a voluntary ban on food products from cloned animals and their offspring until the organization could look into the safety of those products. The milk, meat and other animal products that were on store shelves before the ban were never labelled as coming from clones, and the later ban relied on voluntary self-regulation within the livestock industry. It has never actually been illegal to sell cloned animal products.

According to scientists who have been researching cloned livestock for the FDA for the last four years, there is no difference at all between the products of clones and those of non-clones. Based on their findings, the FDA has approved the sale of food products from cloned cows, pigs and goats and their offspring. Researchers report that there is not enough evidence yet to determine the safety of cloned sheep products.

By definition, a cloned animal is an exact genetic copy of its "parent." So logic would imply that the composition of its milk or flesh would be exactly the same as that of the animal whose DNA scientists used to create it. To clone a specific animal -- say, animal A -- you take a donor egg (from any animal of the same species) and remove the egg's nucleus, where the genetic information lives. You then insert the nucleus of a cell taken from animal A. The egg now contains the DNA of animal A. An electric current then stimulates the egg to begin its growth, and the result is an animal that is a genetic copy, or a clone, of animal A. (See How Cloning Works to learn more.)

If the FDA's decision stands, then in the initial stages of the cloning process, the cloned animals would most likely be used for breeding purposes. For instance, a milk supplier would clone the cow that produces the most milk and then use those clones to breed more of the same. The "cloned milk" in the grocery store would then be the product of the cloned animal's offspring, not of the clones themselves, since the clones would be more valuable as breeders. Still, experts say that it's possible a clone would be used for milking purposes once its breeding days were over. In that case, you'd be drinking milk that came directly from a clone. But that would be the exception to the rule, at least for the time it takes for cloning to really take hold in the livestock industry.

While many companies and cloning advocates are thrilled with the FDA's decision, there are quite a few critics in the scientific community. Their objections encompass a broad range of topics, but some of the biggest complaints include:

  • Cloning is an unproven technology. There has not been enough time and testing since livestock cloning began to know if it's really safe for mass consumption in the long run.

  • The FDA's decision not to require special labeling means that people won't have the option to chose not to consume cloned products without doing a lot of timely research or going vegan. It also means that any unexpected consequences (allergies, for example) of eating cloned animal products will be impossible to trace.

    However, it's possible that consumers will be able to tell if they're buying products from cloned animals or their offspring by default: With surveys showing that so many people are wary of cloning in the food chain, food suppliers who don't use cloning in their breeding process may start putting "no clone" labels on their products, much like you see the "no growth hormone" labels on some products today.

  • Cloning reduces diversity in a given population, making livestock more vulnerable to disease.

  • Since cloning is more expensive than natural breeding, an insistence by the top U.S. suppliers on perfected, cloned animals would cut small ranchers out of the livestock market (four companies slaughter and package 84 percent of livestock products sold in the United States, according to the Humane Society).
And then, of course, there is the moral and ethical debate that inevitably surrounds cloning in any form. What are the overarching implications of removing sexual reproduction from the mammalian equation? What will it mean for the future of livestock? What will it mean for the future of humans?

While the FDA has determined that cloned animal products are safe, this is only a preliminary decision. The FDA will wait until April 1, 2007, to make a final decision. This gives the public time to weig

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