Could you tell if you were eating a clone? Actually, no—not even if you had your own DNA lab. Unlike transgenic animals, whose genes have been modified to create novel creatures, cloning doesn’t leave a genetic trace. Clones are doubles of their gene donors, usually conventionally bred animals that have desirable traits. For the meat and dairy industries, cloning holds out a tantalizing promise: the ability to create doppelgangers of top studs and milkers. But for the grocery shopper, the prospect of clones in the cold case raises a host of ethical and health questions. That’s why a growing body of policymakers, including San Francisco state senator Carole Migden, says meat and milk from cloned animals should be labeled.
SB 1121, Migden’s labeling bill, is currently making its way through the state’s Senate. California is one of thirteen states considering such a bill; Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski is also pushing for a federal law. So far, none have passed; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a virtually identical Migden bill last year, saying such labeling is pre-empted by federal law. Migden and her allies, mostly food safety and consumer interest groups, disagree, pointing out that states have often set precedents for labeling regulations, such as for irradiated foods. “People have a right to know that cloned foods are on the market,” says Migden spokesperson Tracy Fairchild. “We see it as an issue of consumer choice.”
Admittedly, there isn’t much to label yet. According to the US Department of Agriculture, there are fewer than 600 clones in the United States, mostly cattle. The USDA, as well as the federal Food and Drug Administration, portray cloning as the most recent development in animal husbandry’s long history of assisted reproductive technologies, which already includes artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and selective breeding. Cloning companies usually market their services as a way for ranchers to replace valuable animals that die or are injured, or to engineer herds of highly productive livestock. “Instead of having one top female in your & breeding program, imagine what you could accomplish with two, four, or eight of her,” cloning company Cyagra urges on its Web site. Indeed, because clones are so expensive to produce, most observers expect that they’ll primarily be used for breeding, not eating.
In January, the FDA concluded that it is safe to eat milk and meat from cloned animals as well as from their conventionally bred offspring. The FDA spent years examining this hot-button issue; in 2001, the agency asked agricultural producers to observe a “voluntary moratorium” on introducing products from cloned animals into the food supply while it deliberated. In 2006, the agency gave a preliminary all-clear, releasing a draft risk assessment claiming that milk and meat produced by clones and their progeny are no different than those from other animals.
The agency’s findings were hotly contested by the Center for Food Safety, which accused the FDA of fuzzy math and of basing its research too heavily on data supplied by cloning companies. The center released its own report deconstructing the FDA’s figures, emphasizing clones’ low survival rate (between five and eighteen percent between implantation and delivery for cows) and the high prevalence of birth defects.
For example, the Center for Food Safety reports that hydrops, an abnormal build-up of fluid in the fetus that can cause stillbirths and often leads to the euthanization of the surrogate mother, is very rare in natural breeding but may have an incidence rate of up to 42 percent in cattle cloning. The center claims that as many as half of cow clones are afflicted by “Large Offspring Syndrome,” which can cause not only unusually high birth weight, endangering the host mother, but a laundry list of organ dysfunctions and systemic abnormalities, including heart problems and immature lung development. Furthermore, the report cited some evidence that clones are not always exact duplicates of their gene donors, suggesting that cloning remains an unpredictable science.
Rebecca Spector, the group’s West Coast director, says they’re worried that the cloning process might create problems up the food chain. For example, she asks, could people get sick, or develop allergic reactions or antibiotic resistances, due to the high doses of hormones administered to host mothers to assist difficult pregnancies, or the antibiotics given to sickly offspring? Could undetected birth defects or genetic changes in animals that make it to slaughter age have food safety implications? “The FDA’s risk assessment didn’t adequately look at that, especially for long-term effects or effects on children,” Spector says. The group has also encouraged the FDA to consider issues outside of food safety: the animal welfare concerns raised by the poor health of clones and dangers to their host mothers, as well as the threat to biodiversity caused by genetic homogenization. (For the dangers of a monocrop, one only need think of the Irish potato famine.)
Yet the FDA’s final report, issued this January, brushed aside most of these concerns, stating that it was not the agency’s goal to parse the ethics of cloning or determine if clones are “normal.” The agency stood by its original findings: that it’s safe to eat cloned cows, pigs, and goats, although it admitted that the efficiency of producing clones is “very low,” and that animals involved in the process “are at increased risk of adverse health outcomes.” While admitting that the technology is still too new for anyone to draw conclusions about overall clone longevity, the agency ruled that premature deaths “do not pose a food consumption risk” because those animals theoretically don’t survive long enough to enter the food supply, and that the offspring of clones are safe to eat because the sexual reproduction process resets possible genetic defects in their parents.
The FDA stresses that meat and milk go through multiple quality checks before hitting the grocery stores (including ensuring that animals slaughtered for meat do not contain unapproved levels of antibiotics in their edible tissues), and products that fail federal or state standards are withheld from the food supply. (The Center for Food Safety challenges these claims, pointing out that agricultural inspectors are unlikely to catch subtle defects.) The FDA emphasizes that clones are mostly “elite breeding animals” unlikely to go to slaughter. As a statement from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine puts it: “The value of these animals is in their genetics, not their meat. & Clones are just too expensive to produce, so you wouldn’t want to eat your investment.” In any case, the statement continues, “Clones are as identical as twins are—there is always a slim chance of genetic mutation in the production of any animal, no matter how it is created. We do not expect any food safety effects.”
Even after the report’s release, both the FDA and the USDA have asked producers to continue observing the voluntary moratorium. The FDA says that it is not aware of any clone-derived products entering the market since the report was released. The FDA (which regulates milk products) says it will not require labeling for food derived from clones, because it is not nutritionally different than food from other animals. However, the agency may consider, on a case-by-case basis, the truthfulness of the claims of producers who want to label their dairy products “clone-free.” The USDA (which regulates meat) has not taken a stance on labeling, although it has stated that meat from clones cannot be considered “organic.” (The agency has not decided if this will also apply to meat from clones’ offspring.) A spokesman from the California Department of Food & Agriculture declined to give the state’s take on the labeling issue, saying the agency cannot comment on pending legislation.
According to a 2007 Consumers Unions survey, 89 percent of Americans would support labeling. Oddly, most of the forward motion on this issue seems to be coming from cloning companies themselves. Last year two of them—ViaGen and TransOva Genetics—announced they had developed a supply chain tracking program for cloned animals utilizing a third party registry, similar to the systems used to reassure consumers that they are buying Fair Trade coffee or Halal meats. Both companies referred questions to Barbara Glenn, animal biotechnology spokesperson for lobbying group BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization). She compares the labels involved in this system to ones already used to denote organic or kosher foods. “Such labels provide information not about the ingredients, or nutritional value, or safety of the foods, but rather about the process by which the foods were produced.By facilitating consumer choice, such labels serve a valuable function,” she says.
Glenn says that while BIO opposes mandatory labeling, “We do support voluntary labeling as long as the label is truthful and not misleading. Therefore, food marketers could use ‘no clone’ labels to appeal to consumers who want to avoid buying food products from cloned animals.” Others have suggested that consumers concerned about cloning skirt the issue by buying organic. However, says Migden spokesperson Fairchild, “That is unfair to consumers. It puts more pressure on their pocketbooks, because organic foods are more expensive.”
Cloning’s critics suspect that even if labeling eventually prevails, consumers will ultimately reject a technology that seems to benefit breeders, rather than buyers—especially one that involves dairy production, a touchy subject because milk is so frequently consumed by children. Plus, Spector points out, as a political issue, cloning likely has a “yick factor” that even genetically engineered crops can’t match. As the labeling debate makes its way through thirteen state legislatures, brace yourself—we’ll be hearing about clone-derived foods again.