After more than five years of analysis of milk and meat products, scientific research and health records, last month the FDA decided that food from cloned animals is safe to eat. Cloned livestock, the agency says, is “virtually indistinguishable” from conventional livestock.
But it seems many consumers are not quite ready to throw a cloneburger on the grill. In a poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, 64 percent of respondents are uncomfortable with such food. The International Food Information Council found that only 16 percent of people give a favorable rating to animal cloning. Most say they would be unlikely to purchase foods from cloned animals (58 percent) or their descendants (59 percent).
But how will they know if they have cloned food in their carts? Because the FDA says there is no difference between food from cloned animals and its conventional counterparts, the agency will not —in fact, cannot — force manufacturers to label these products. (The FDA will issue its final decision on this question next year, following a public comment period.)
This is likely to provide a starting point for objections among consumer groups opposed to cloning. They assert they should be able to spend their money only on those products and processes they support, whether it’s fair trade coffee, organic produce or kosher meat. To do that, they need the information.
Because the cost of making a clone currently runs in tens of thousands of dollars, the animals so-created will likely be used for breeding; an army of clones headed for the packing plant is not imminent. In the short run, what will turn up on store shelves will be mainly the offspring of clones, not the clones themselves. Eventually, those will enter the food chain, once they have outlived their breeding usefulness. And, as with any technology, the price of cloning will start to fall once the practice becomes more common, presumably sending more clones into our herds and stores.
While some consumer groups are protesting the FDA’s decision with the objection that there is no benefit for consumers, proponents say cloning could be a win-win for both consumers and producers. By circumventing the vagaries of breeding, farmers could preserve known, superior genetics. Producing predictably high quality products could make them more profitable. They could, through cloning, target and develop any trait they wish — marbling, omega-3 fatty acids, tenderness, calving ease. Consumers would be the ultimate beneficiaries of these developments.
Of course, a lot of meat and milk sold today already comes from animals produced through means once considered unnatural, such as embryo transfers and artificial insemination. And many of our fruits and vegetables currently come from cloned plants; our wine is squeezed out of cloned grapes.
But to consumers, there’s a big difference between a cloned apple and a cloned Angus, though it might be difficult to say exactly what it is. Possibly, as with other technological developments involving food production, they will get comfortable with the idea over time. Certainly, the cloning issue demands on-going, reasoned debate. So let that debate begin.