The activists fighting cloned meat are long on feelings, short on evidence.
The preliminary decision of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week to permit the consumption of food from cloned animals is a good one. If anything, it’s long overdue, because scientists have known for years that the clones are indistinguishable genetically, biochemically, and nutritionally from the parent. As one farmer who owns a pair of clones of a prize-winning Holstein cow observed, they are essentially twins of “a cow that was already in production.”
Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. Barron’s selected his latest book, “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution,” as one of the Best 25 Books of 2004.
Cloning technology is analogous to other reproductive technologies, such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, that are widely used in the livestock industry. A clone is produced by taking a single cell from an animal that one wants to replicate and fusing it with a cow egg that has had its DNA removed. Then, a small electric shock induces the egg to grow into a copy of the original animal, resulting in the creation of an embryo that can be transferred to and gestated in a surrogate mother animal. The newborn is a replica of the animal that donated the initial cell. Just as a breeder of racehorses would like to have an exact duplicate of a Triple Crown Winner, farmers want copies of exemplary animals.
Although clones that survive to term are likelier than other animals to die in infancy (perhaps caused by known subtle differences in gene regulation even among animals derived from the same cell), the animals that survive infancy appear to be completely normal.
Some in the food industry have expressed fears that consumers might reject milk and meat from cloned cows, but history argues otherwise. Twenty years ago, there were similar concerns when dairy farmers began using the first gene-spliced veterinary product, bovine somatotropin (bST), also known as bovine growth hormone. The drug, a protein that stimulates milk production in cows, generated significant controversy, with some analysts predicting that its introduction would so frighten consumers that milk consumption could drop as much as 20 percent. Although the milk is in no way different or less wholesome than that obtained from untreated cows, activists demanded special regulations, including mandatory labeling of dairy products from bST-treated animals. FDA demurred, however; the product was hugely successful; and a decade after milk from bST-treated cows began to be marketed, an analysis from the USDA’s Economic Research Service concluded: “Scientific evidence about food safety will not prevent controversy.” On the other hand, said the analysis, “even intense controversy may have minimal or no effect on total demand [and] the absence of reports of harm from consumption contributes to continued consumption.”
Once again, compelling scientific evidence about food safety isn’t preventing controversy. The FDA risk assessment released last week reflected a high degree of assurance—“extensive evaluation of the available data has not identified any food consumption risks or subtle hazards in healthy clones of cattle, swine, or goats"—but that didn’t deter the anti-technology NGOs from attacking the decision. The biotech-bashers have been especially upset that because the meat from cloned animals is indistinguishable from the parent, it is highly unlikely that regulators will require labeling to identify food derived from cloned animals. Activists have adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, they try to coerce food producers and processors into rejecting new food technology. Failing that, they try to get government agencies to over-regulate. An important element of these efforts is mandatory labeling of food made with technologies the activists dislike—such labels help them to demonize those products and to intimidate their producers, distributors, and retailers.
The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act requires that food labels be truthful and not misleading, and federal law prohibits label statements that are likely to be misunderstood by consumers, even if they are, strictly speaking, accurate. For example, although a “cholesterol-free” label on a certain variety or batch of fresh broccoli is accurate, it could run afoul of FDA’s rules because it could be interpreted to as implying that broccoli usually does contain cholesterol, even though in fact it does not.
Analogously, instead of educating or serving a legitimate consumer need, mandatory labels o food from cloned animals would falsely imply that FDA is aware of some important but unspecified difference between cloned meat and other meat. FDA’s current approach toward labeling, which has been dubbed “need to know”—as opposed to the European Union’s view that consumers have a “right to know”—has been upheld both directly and indirectly by various federal court decisions. Given that practice, labels that identified food derived from cloned animals would only mislead consumers.
This technology will offer yet another tool to enable biologists and animal breeders to make foods more consistent, nutritious, and tasty. The activists have cloned their own visceral, irrational objections from earlier food debates—and they’re just as misguided this time.
Image credit: "Meat labels" by Flickr user afiler