This week marks the 15th anniversary of the arrival of Dolly, the famous sheep who was the first animal successfully reproduced by cloning, and whose preserved body, by the way, is displayed in a rotating case at the National Museum of Scotland.
It also marks nearly three years since the FDA ruled that meat and milk from cloned animals was safe to consume and that no specific labeling requirements would be mandated for such products.
That ruling has kept critics busy decrying FDA’s (alleged) lack of scientific rigor, its political bias toward industry and its willful disregard of the potential of the as-yet-undetermined risks involving both food safety and animal health that might surface at some point down the road.
Although the public’s focus on animal rights issues had always been a short-term proposition tied to the shock value of hidden video footage or as a result of food-safety incidents or other newsworthy media events, cloning remains a weapon in the animal rights community’s arsenal that continues to be trotted out whenever news developments provide an excuse to do so
In Great Britain, where that country’s Food Standards Agency ruled this week that products from cloned animals are safe for human consumption and should be approved for sale in the UK, the agency continues to face opposition from anti-cloning groups such as Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the World Wildlife Fund. Part of the controversy stems from that fact that two years ago, it was discovered that meat from the offspring of a cloned cow had been eaten in the UK without a license being obtained.
The other part is a continuing effort on the part of opposition groups to portray cloning as an unnatural, aberrant technology to improve the production of animal foods.
It appears to have impacted its targeted audience, according to a new study.
Sean Fox, a Kansas State University professor of agricultural economics, and grad student Shonda Anderson recently surveyed undergrads at KSU and at Ireland’s University College-Dublin and Ecole Superieure d’Agriculture in Purpan, France, about their likelihood of buying and eating meat and other products from cloned animals. He found that students in Ireland and France were less likely to consume cloned products than K-State students. However, students were more likely to consume cloned products after learning that both the Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority stated that cloned animal products pose no safety risk.
Not surprisingly, European students were more concerned about cloning from an ethical or moral perspective, while American students cited food-safety concerns.
Although he cautioned that the survey results cannot be extrapolated to larger populations, Fox noted that his results suggest that “A significant number of people have concerns about cloning [which] will be very relevant if these products come to market and are labeled as such, because we would expect to see a significant number of people avoiding them.”
FDA’s careful, cautious approach
For all the hot air about cloning’s risks and rewards, even a cursory reading of FDA’s landmark approval shows that the agency was cautious and careful in evaluating both the benefits and the anxieties surrounding the technology.
On potential food-safety concerns, FDA stated that, “We do not believe that clones of non-food species present any public health concerns. Such animals do not introduce any new heritable traits into other animals, and the progeny of all clones are just as safe as products from conventionally bred animals. With respect to detecting [health-related] anomalies in clones, we note that clones will be subject to the same pre- and post-mortem inspections as conventionally bred food animals [and thus] no special post-market control points for clones are necessary.”
With regard to potential allergenic risks (a popular claim of anti-cloning groups), FDA stated that, “We found no evidence to indicate that foods from clones pose an increased allergenic risk. No novel proteins have been identified in meat or milk from clones, and studies using animal models have not indicated that the allergenic potential of meat or milk from clones is increased relative to meat or milk from conventional animals.”
As for health risks to cloned animals themselves, FDA acknowledged that concerns were raised regarding the low efficiency of the cloning process, the occasional premature deaths of clones, the impact of Large Offspring Syndrome (where the fetus grows too large) and the appearance of congenital abnormalities in clones. But the agency determined that cloning falls on a continuum of artificial reproductive technologies (including AI, in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer techniques), and “the adverse outcomes associated with cloning are not unique but are also observed, at lower frequencies, with other ARTs. FDA does not regulate ARTs in livestock production, and therefore, there is no reason for FDA to impose specific restrictions on livestock cloning.”
In the end, FDA noted in its final ruling that the agency “neither supports nor opposes cloning” and “shares the concerns voiced in many of the public opinions regarding the increased incidence of adverse health outcomes in clones and recognizes the importance of mitigating these risks.”
But the commissioners based their judgment on scientific data, and thus concluded that, “Because our risk assessment has clearly shown that there are no food-safety concerns for the meat and milk from clones and the progeny of clones, we do not believe that there is a material fact that would be required to be included in the labeling of these foods.”
Yet despite the mountains of evidence, the moral questions linger.
As Michael Tobias, the author, filmmaker and ecologist who is heavily involvement in the animal rights movement, wrote in Forbes online this week, “While many biotechnology watchdogs, ethicists and animal rights proponents have called endeavors [to refine cloning] nothing less than blind alleyways—or worse—there is no question that cloning represents one of the most ambiguous temptations in the wake of humanity’s utter mishandling of the earth; a planet of life that was never given to us to manipulate in the first place.”
Whether cloning represents more “mishandling” or whether it’s a step toward wiser, better managed use of o food animal resources humanity relies upon is a question science has already resolved.
Whether public opinion follows suit is far less certain.
Dan Murphy is as veteran food-industry journalist and commentator