Where’s the Beef?

| 26/01/2008 | Reply


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 offspring 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 19th
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.

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.

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 fair 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.

Gregory Conko is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His most recent book, The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, co-written with Henry I. Miller, was named by Barron’s as one of the best books of 2004.

Category: Halal Integrity, Meat & Poultry, The Americas

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