We've been using cloned plants to decorate our homes and gardens for years. Technically, plants grown from cuttings are clones since they reproduce asexually and are genetic copies of the original. But the idea of eating meat and drinking milk from cloned animals strikes a particular fear-inducing chord with some folks. Actually, make that a lot of folks. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) originally announced on Dec. 26, 2006, that meat from cloned cows, goats and pigs is safe to eat (as well as milk from cows and goats), but a study conducted that same year by the International Food Information Council found that 54 percent of Americans oppose its arrival in the marketplace [source: Kaplan].
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, a pig -- you take a donor egg from a female pig and remove the egg's nucleus, where the genetic information lives. You then insert the nucleus of a cell taken from another pig into the egg. The egg now contains the latter pig's DNA. An electric current then stimulates the egg to begin growing, and the result is a genetic copy, or clone, of that pig.
On Jan. 15, 2008, about a year after its initial announcement, the FDA finalized its safety ruling, green-lighting the sale of meat and milk products from the offspring of cloned animals. These offspring aren't considered clones since their cloned parents bred in the natural, birds-and-the-bees kind of way. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also requested that manufacturers refrain from selling products from actual cloned animals to allow the market to catch up to the technology. In addition to the negative current of public opinion, cloning is a pricey venture costing more than $15,000 for a single cow [source: Pacella].
The FDA announced in September 2008 that cloned meat and milk may already be in the nation's food supply. So what does that mean for consumers who may lose their appetite at the thought of eating cloned meat?
Cloned Meat Labeling
Livestock cloning has been going on since at least 1998. In 2003, the FDA issued a voluntary ban on food products from cloned animals and their offspring until the organization could examine the safety issues. According to scientists who researched cloned livestock for the FDA, no distinguishable difference exists between the products of clones and those of non-clones.
The milk, meat and other animal products that were on store shelves before the 2003 ban were never labeled as coming from clones, and the later ban relied on voluntary self-regulation within the livestock industry. So, if meat or milk from cloned animals doesn't whet your appetite, how can you avoid bringing it home?
Due to the high cost of cloning, cloned animals are primarily used for breeding purposes. For instance, a milk supplier would clone the cow that produces the most milk out of the herd and then use those clones to breed more of the same. The farmer would sell the milk of those offspring, not of the clones themselves, since they would be more valuable as breeders. As of March 2008, the USDA estimated that there were around 600 cloned animals used for breeding in the United States [source: Knight].
But the FDA doesn't require special cloned meat labeling for food manufacturers that sell meat and milk from cloned offspring. Also, there's no scientific test to determine whether a meat or milk product came from cloned animal lineage. That ambiguity is one of the primary concerns voiced by consumer advocacy groups and people who oppose the FDA's motion. At this point, it's up to the manufacturers to disclose as much -- or as little -- as they wish. On the flip side, that may mean that we could see more non-cloned types of food labels from companies looking to capitalize on the public's general distrust of eating cloned meat.
Due to public concern, at least 13 state legislatures have introduced bills to require some type of identification on cloned animal products [source: Gogoi]. If the measures pass, they could serve a blow to the livestock and biotechnology industries that see cloning as the future of meat production. However, since scientists can't tell the difference between cloned and non-cloned animal meat, enforcing these potential laws would be difficult as well.
For now, if you want to avoid eating food associated with cloned animals, the easiest way is to go organic. In 2007, the National Organic Program, which oversees organic food standards in the United States, ruled that cloned animal products would not meet its criteria. That means that certified organic foods in the United States can't contain cloned animal products or products from the offspring of cloned animals [source: Knight].
While this debate continues in the United States, it may soon echo abroad. Following the FDA's 2008 ruling, the European Food Safety Authority tentatively concurred that cloned food is safe for consumption but has yet to approve its sale in the European Union.
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More Great Links
- Gogoi, Pallavi. "States Move to Label Cloned Food." Business Week. March 4, 2008. (Sept. 2, 2008)http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/mar2008/db2008033_119633.htm
- Kaplan, Karen. "FDA declares cloned meat safe." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 16, 2008. (Sept. 2, 2008)http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-sci-clone16jan16,1,5765043.story
- Knight, Bruce I. "Animal Cloning: Transitioning from the Lab to the Market." USDA. March 5, 2008. (Sept. 2, 2008)http://www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/speeches/content/2008/03/Biotech_Comm_final_3-5-08.pdf
- Ledford, Heidi. "Cloned animals deemed safe to eat." Nature.com. Dec. 28, 2006. http://www.nature.com/news/2006/061225/full/061225-3.html
- "Meat, milk from clones' offspring possibly in food supply: U.S. officials." CBC News. Sept. 3, 2008. (Sept. 3, 2008)http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2008/09/03/cloning-foodsupply.html
- Pacella, Rena Marie. "Your Burger on Biotech." Popular Science. March 17, 2008. (Sept. 2, 2008)http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2008-03/your-burger-biotech
- Ryan, Missy. "Dolly for dinner? Not just yet, critics say." Washington Post. Dec. 29, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/29/AR2006122900855.html
- Wanjek, Christopher. "My Big Beef with Cloned Cattle." LiveScience. Jan. 2, 2007. http://www.livescience.com/humanbiology/070102_bad_clones.html