The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule Jan. 15 stating that meat and milk from healthy cloned animals and their offspring posed no risk to human health, and do not need to be labeled. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has asked for a voluntary moratorium on the sale of meat and milk from cloned animals while religious, cultural and ethical concerns are addressed.
The European Food Safety Authority endorsed cloning a few days earlier, but the decision still needs buy-in from the European Union's 27 governments.
Critics have raised concerns about the ethics, safety and economic sensibility of such a decision. They question the need for cloning, given that the most sought-after and profitable sector of the food industry is organic and naturally raised products, and cite a lack of consumer support.
The two major cloning companies that stand to benefit from the decision are Austin, Texas-based ViaGen and Sioux City, Iowa-based Trans-Ova Genetics. They say their goal is to create an elite breeding stock in cattle, pigs and goats, which they predict will pass on desirable traits to the offspring, such as leaner cuts of meat, superior quality milk and perhaps later, beef free from E. coli.
Though the concept might sound promising to some, most consumers aren't interested. According to a 2004 Gallup poll, 64 percent of consumers said livestock cloning should not be allowed. A 2007 study by the International Food Information Council said 53 percent of respondents were not likely to purchase food if they knew it came from the offspring of cloned animals.
"The FDA and the USDA have an obligation to protect not only the safety of our food production, but to also pay attention to what consumers want," said Mel Coleman Jr., chairman of Coleman Natural Foods of Golden, Colo. "I don't know of any consumers who believe this is the right thing to do."
The push to convince consumers and the food industry to accept cloning will begin with an education campaign to persuade consumers that "livestock cloning is an evolution in reproductive techniques," said Leah Wilkinson, director of policy and industry relations for ViaGen. Cloning, she said, is simply another form of reproduction that is as safe as artificial insemination, embryo transfer, embryo splitting and in vitro fertilization.
Confronting this theory head-on is the latest human genome research, a project called ENCODE, which reports there are at least 15 million places along human genomes that differ from one being to the next. Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., chief scientist with The Organic Center of Boulder, Colo., said there is no reason to suspect that farm animals are any different.
"Relying on cloned animals stops evolution in its tracks," Benbrook said. "The cold shower of all this is, while you can create a clone that evolves from a set of genes that are identical, we will never create the exact same animal."
Benbrook also cites the low rate of cloning effectiveness. According to Wilkinson, 95 percent of cloning attempts do not result in viable conception or successful birth, as opposed to artificial insemination, which is at least 70 percent successful in cattle.
So why is a technology with a low efficiency rate so sought-after? The cloning industry could become a $20 billion business with the FDA's blessing now in place, though cloning's gain could mean losses for the export dairy market. The U.S. Dairy Export Council's research indicated that if animal cloning is approved, cheese exports could fall by $25 million to $59 million, with the overall loss in the export dairy sector exceeding $100 million because of consumer mistrust.
All indications are cloning will spark the same worldwide debate as did genetically modified foods and consumers' right to know. Wilkinson said a system is in place to address traceability and labeling of foods from cloned animals. "Knowing that the consumers will want a choice, and retailers will want to provide that choice, we are working with the food industry to come up with a supply-chain management system," she said, "so if a retail chain wants to label their products as such, we will verify the claim."
But how will consumers know if the food is from the offspring of cloned animals? They won't. Because it costs $10,000 to $20,000 to produce a cloned animal, it is not likely to be sold as food, but its offspring could be in the meat or dairy case by 2011, with no plan to track the progeny.
Given such livestock-industry mishaps as mad cow disease, the cancer-causing hormone diethystilbestrol used as a growth promoter in cattle, and overuse of antibiotics, cloning opponents worry that once the technology is approved, there will be no turning back, Coleman said.
As far as labeling, the organic industry will be poised to add one more claim to its products: Not produced from the offspring of cloned animals. This could make certified organic and certified naturally raised dairy and livestock (pending approval from USDA for the term) even more appealing to consumers.
Kimberly Lord Stewart is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer and author of Eating Between the Lines (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 2/p. 1