The waiter places a perfectly grilled, prime-grade beefsteak before you and then reveals that it came from a cloned steer. Do you eat it? For most Americans, the answer is no. A survey conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that the thought of dining on meat from animals copied via manual transfer of cell nuclei just does not sit well with six in 10 of us. Blame ethical or religious concerns or mistrust of the meat industry, but the idea of cloned meat elicits distaste even in many confirmed carnivores.
Is that gut reaction justified? From a food-safety standpoint, probably not. In January, after reviewing available scientific reports about animal cloning, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a risk assessment asserting that food (including milk) from cloned cattle, swine and goats is "likely to be as safe as" that from non¿cloned animals.
The FDA's expected approval is unlikely to bring cloned meat products to store shelves soon, because cloning is still difficult and, hence, too expensive for routine food production. But ranchers and dairy producers may be willing to pay more than $15,000 for a "rock star" breeding animal with superior genetics. Proponents claim that cloning these individuals will yield elite animals with desirable traits, such as general good health, disease resistance, greater productivity or leaner, tastier meat--without growth stimulants. The offspring of those clones will probably be the first to arrive at the dinner table. The distinction between this procedure and conventional animal husbandry would be the use of a genetic copy as breeding stock.
Detractors claim that this rosy scenario overlooks unresolved issues. Clone-based pregnancies, for example, result in more miscarriages, deformities and premature deaths than other methods do, but the FDA argues that these animal-welfare problems are not unique to cloning and that none are linked to human health risks. Many critics also fear overreliance on vulnerable monocultures of genetically identical animals that could be wiped out by a single disease. Even some members of the farm industry oppose animal cloning because cloned meat and dairy products could be shunned overseas, where food from genetically modified crops is often banned.
Perhaps the real issue here is one of full disclosure regarding our foodstuffs. Many meat eaters may be surprised to learn that the cattle industry has long employed a process called budding, in which technicians manually separate the undifferentiated cells in a fertilized cow egg that has undergone several divisions. Each of these cells is then grown into an identical individual, in some cases yielding hundreds of artificially induced twins, or "natural" clones.
Considering that the public has already been eating meat manipulated by high-tech means, an open debate might help inform or overcome skepticism about animal cloning. Such a discussion would require that Americans have ready access to detailed information about the food they eat. Industry marketing concerns forbid such full disclosure. We, however, believe that consumers should have the right to know whether their food was raised in a way they deem acceptable. Only clear and complete labeling of all food products, beyond today's incomplete and sometimes misleading tags, can bring this about--and not just for cloned products, which might otherwise suffer unjustly in a system where food producers routinely game the meanings of "organic" and "natural."
This article was originally published with the title The Beef with Cloned Meat.