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The Barnyard Besieged

As we clone, so shall we reap

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The Barnyard Besieged

How safe is the admission of cloned meat and food products into our food chain?

“Welcome to Dolly’s Clone Zone,” enthused our young waiter as he showed us to our table.

Handing us menus, he said, “You’ll be pleased to learn that we feature the finest in nuclear transferred cloned meat. Take a minute to check out our somatic cell nuclear transfer cloned (SCNT) lamb, which was formulated in a Texas lab. By the way, our restaurant’s namesake, Dolly the sheep, was the first live SCNT clone produced from a cell taken from an adult mammal.

“As for beef, our specialty comes courtesy of embryonic cell nuclear transfer technology (ECNT). If you have any questions or concerns, I’ll locate our food systems techie, who really understands the science aspect of the process.”

While the preceding restaurant scenario might seem farfetched, if the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gets its way, the only thing implausible about the aforementioned dining experience would be the fact that the server wouldn’t know if the meat was cloned or not.

FDA Says Okay

On January 15, 2008, the FDA issued a press release announcing that it was safe for Americans to consume milk and meat from clones of cattle, swine, and goats. The FDA stated, “The agency is not requiring labelling or any other additional measures for food from cattle, swine, and goat clones, or their offspring, because food derived from these sources is no different from food derived from conventionally bred animals.” The FDA didn’t include meat from sheep, citing a lack of risk analysis information.

Moratorium Continues

Ironically, the US Department of Agriculture, under direction from an amendment to the December 2007 Senate-approved Farm Bill, which called for a thorough and careful review of the repercussions of allowing cloned products into the food chain, was forced to ask producers of clones to maintain their voluntary moratorium, in place since June 2001.

Biotechs are Ready

Despite the request for a continued moratorium, Jim Greenwood, President of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which lobbies on behalf of more than 1,150 biotech companies, lauded the FDA’s decision and added, “The biotechnology industry looks forward to working with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and members of the food value chain to support an orderly transition and introduction of products from cloning technology into the marketplace.”

Consumers Aren’t

Among consumer groups, scientific panels, and millions of concerned citizens, there was an outcry of dismay, disbelief, and outrage at what they feel is yet another misguided and potentially harmful FDA decision.

Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a public interest advocacy organization, complained, “The FDA’s bullheaded action today disregards the will of the public and opens a literal Pandora’s box. The FDA based their decision on an incomplete and flawed review that relies on studies supplied by cloning companies that want to force cloning technology on American consumers.”

Consumers Union (CU), a US consumer rights advocacy group, assailed the inadequacy of the FDA’s cloned meat risk assessment and its decision to not require labelling of cloned milk and meat.

According to Michael Hansen, Senior Staff Scientist with CU, “The FDA’s own data show that a large proportion of cloned animals do not make it to their first birthday. Many fail to survive gestation, and others have birth defects such as squashed faces, deformed limbs, and immune deficiencies. Consumers have a right to choose whether they eat milk and meat from clones.”

The CFS concurs with Hansen’s position. Its March 2007 report, Not Ready for PrimeTime: FDA’s Flawed Approach to Assessing the Safety of Food from Animal Clones, finds that the FDA’s risk assessment “is based on unsubstantiated assumptions, misreported findings, and flawed analyses of scientific research.” Of particular concern is the fact the FDA has been unable to locate peer-reviewed food safety studies on meat from cloned cattle, pigs, or goats.

Also being challenged is the FDA’s claim that the offspring of clones wouldn’t be subject to any of the inherited or developmental flaws that many cloned animals possess. The CFS report cites a 2004 document by the National Academy of Sciences, Safety of GeneticallyEngineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects, which states, “Little evidence is available in the scientific literature to assess whether the progeny of cloned animals are at increased risk for inherited or developmental defects.”

Check Your Conscience

As we contemplate what we are going to eat at Dolly’s Clone Zone restaurant, perhaps we should consider some of the ethical issues involved with cloning animals. Many of the animals, if they survive the initial cloning process, suffer from a myriad of health problems and defects including enlarged fetuses, placental disorders, brain and spinal cord inflammation, and compromised immune response systems.

Dolly the sheep, for example, was euthanized before her sixth birthday, suffering from arthritis and lung disease. In cloned cattle, many have to be “put down” because they have musculoskeletal abnormalities such as contracted flexor tendons and chronic lameness.

Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US organization comprised of more than 200,000 citizens and scientists, expressed her concern this way, “The issue is not whether or not cloning produces unique defects, but rather how much animal suffering is acceptable in the search for higher productivity…FDA should delay lifting the voluntary moratorium on animal cloning for food until the success rate of producing apparently normal animals improves dramatically.”

For Canadians who are feeling pangs of envy because they’re missing out on the latest technological advances in the pursuit of the most succulent steak, don’t fret. An unidentified livestock company approached Health Canada in 2002 seeking permission to sell meat from cloned animals but was denied pending further research on the risks of allowing cloned products into our food chain.

In 2007 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada responded to the FDA’s Animal Cloning: A Draft Risk Assessment document and actually complimented the FDA for its science-based focus.

Its response stated, “The Government of Canada will…continue its current approach of assessing animal clones on a case-by-case basis and will use this Draft Risk Assessment, as well as other new information, in our continuing study of animal cloning with respect to food and feed safety and animal health considerations.”

Take Action

Consumers of meat products might want to weigh into the debate and inform the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada of their concerns regarding the admission of cloned meat and milk products into our food chain.

Back at Dolly’s Clone Zone, the waiter awaits: “So have you decided which entr?you would like?”

“I think I’ll pass on the cloned options; they don’t seem very appealing,” answered one of my fellow diners. “You wouldn’t have some organic, naturally produced meat, would you?”

“Oh… I don’t think we have any non-biotech meat, but let me get the food systems techie for you,” replied our server. “You’ll want to try some after she convinces you of just how advanced and nonhazardous our offerings are.”

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