Commentary: Ethics vs. economics

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That tension is how some analysts explain the drama over the EU’s proposed ban on meat from cloned animals. But with cloning, what consumers care about is simple: ‘What’s in it for me?’

The European Union is at it again, working hard to protect us from ourselves.

Only two months ago, a resolution was introduced in the European Parliament to enact legislation that would ban all farm-based cloning and greatly restrict the importation of cloned animals and products from cloned animals. Since then, despite intense debate and lingering controversy over the measure, the issue of whether to allow the sale of cloned animals and their meat has yet to be resolved.

Last week, according to a reports from EU Business and Bloomberg News, the members of the committee tasked with studying the proposal became embroiled in controversy when some members criticized the proposal because it didn’t impose tough enough restrictions. Some committee members allegedly demanded that the current proposal be withdrawn and a newer, stronger one drafted from scratch.

One of the areas of disagreement was the proposed restrictions on reproductive material from cloned animals, meaning both embryos from inter-bred clones and the offspring of cloned animals. Of course, breeding cloned animals does not produce genetically identical clones; however, the offspring would be very similar to the parents genetically and any offspring would likely be at a greater risk for development of genetic disorders.

As EU Business phrased it, “It would be similar to a situation where two identical twins produced a child.”

Other committee members were reportedly less opposed to the sale of cloned animal offspring or meat from clones. EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg admitted that, “If coupled with an effective labeling campaign, such sales might be permissible.”

In terms of safety, selling (and eating) meat from clones is perfectly fine. The problem, though, is the same one plaguing country-of-origin labeling: logistics.

Segregating and tracking products from cloned animals through the food chain would be a significant challenge, and an expensive one. The infrastructure to track the offspring of cloned animals and then trace the subsequent products and ingredients derived from those offspring is pretty much non-existent.

It’s not like there would be massive tonnage of meat from the offspring of cloned breeding stock, Anyway, but the added costs for even minimal tracking and recordkeeping would be substantial.

Another way of saying it would be “prohibitive.”

Science is just too complex

Those who have followed the EU’s various proposals on the use of hormones or antibiotics in livestock production understand that the mentality of the Euro-consumer is different than that of most Americans — more concerned about ethics and more appreciative of tough regulations on practices that, while seemingly safe at present, might cause problems as yet undefined for future generations yet unborn.

(For all of their self-professed insistence on close scrutiny of animal agriculture and meat processing, however, European regulatory officials whiffed completely on the horsemeat scandal that rocked the Continent last year and was apparently going on under their noses for several years before that).

In The States, the small but vocal minority that remains opposed to cloning is focused less on ethics and more on concerns over food safety and animal abuse. Since cloning involves complicated technology based on complex science, it’s a perfect tool for activists to whip up fear among consumers who have no clue about how or why cloning is used in livestock production.

They know about Dolly the cloned sheep, and that’s about it.

Truth is, cloning is quite capital-intensive and the typical success rate is abysmal — somewhere around 15 percent of all attempted cloning procedures result in viability. For that reason, some supporters of the EU’s proposed restrictions on cloned meat argue that cloning causes unnecessary suffering, which is but a side issue for U.S. activists.

It’s much more effective for stateside opponents to talk about how “unnatural” cloning is, to play the Frankenfoods card — cloned meat could kill all of us! — than try to whip up sympathy for a cloned calf somewhere that didn’t make it.

So yes, cloning is “unnatural,” if one defines “natural reproduction” as the process of creating progeny by allowing bulls and cows or boars and sows to follow their instincts when the females go into heat.

By that definition, most of modern cattle and pig production is unnatural, since random breeding virtually guarantees that the herd’s performance and the consistency, quality and yield of the resulting carcasses will be substandard and thus non-competitive.

Unless a rancher or producer is raising heritage breeds that carry a marketing claim — such as organic, antibiotic-free or locally sourced — “natural” breeding ensures that he or she will be exiting the business sooner, rather than later.

As mainstream news reports detailed, safety and health issues were not a factor in the EU proposal. The European Food Safety Authority has found no indication that the safety of dairy and meat products from cloned animals or their offspring is inferior to that of conventionally bred animals.

What’s missing from the debate over cloning, what’s so often a problem for industry spokespeople trying to justify many other production practices, is that they don’t present an obvious consumer benefit, at least something that can be explained to the public’s satisfaction.

By way of analogy: With the initial applications of genetic engineering — square tomatoes and steel-skinned strawberries — people perceived that the benefits of biotech were going solely to the growers, with nothing but added risk and dubious value for consumers.

It’s similar with cloning. In virtually every conversation I’ve had exploring peoples’ reaction to the technology, the first question is always the same: “Why do we even need to clone animals?”

Until there’s a satisfactory answer to that query, until there is something positive in the use of the technology that benefits the meat-eating public, all the PR messaging selling the “efficiencies” of cloning won’t make a dent in consumers’ reluctance to accept — much less embrace — the concept as a legitimate tool in the production of animal foods.

That’s a shame, but it’s also a fact. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Graybull    
Wyo  |  March, 01, 2014 at 01:16 PM

Dan……be careful in straying outside your area of expertise……..cattle breeding….. By that definition, most of modern cattle and pig production is unnatural, since random breeding virtually guarantees that the herd’s performance and the consistency, quality and yield of the resulting carcasses will be substandard and thus non-competitive.


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